Bernson's Corner: Lord of the Flies - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Bernson's Corner: Lord of the Flies


A creature that's only about three millimeters long has a giant-sized job in scientific research.

And it's an animal that most of us try to get rid of, in our homes.

In Bernson's Corner,  a story that may have you bug-eyed.

They don't look like workhorses, but they are:  the workhorse of biology and genetics laboratories.  Drosophila melanogaster -- the fruit fly.  And the fruit fly capital of the world is in Jordan Hall at Indiana University.  It's home to millions of the tiny bugs here in the Bloomington Drosophila Stock Center.  Dr. Thomas Kaufman is the director.  You might call him the "Lord of the Flies."

"Every lab in the world can't keep all of these flies. Right now we have something approaching 30,000 different mutations," he says.  Dr. Kaufman explains that "every week we send out orders of flies all over -- scientists all over the world come to us and order Drosophila.  We have a variety of different kinds, different mutations, tools that the scientists can use."

At the Bloomington Drosophila Stock Center the flies are fed a special diet and kept in a temperature- and humidity-controlled vault.  Following orders from their pin-sized brains, the females can lay hundreds of eggs every day.

In fact, at any minute a flask can hold all the life stages of the fruit fly: the larvae, the pupae and the adults

Why do genetic researchers love the flies?  They reproduce quickly, so many generations can be studied in a short time.  And because the fruit fly genome has been completely mapped, they can be good substitutes for people.

Dr. Kaufman says, "when you compare them on a gene-to-gene basis, 75% of the known human disease-causing genes can be found in a fruit fly.  --So we're more like a fruit fly... --Than a lot of people would like to admit, yes."

Kaufman and his colleagues at the stock center take great pride in creating what we might call... Franken-flies.  "When you mutate the gene, you take one part of the animal and transform it into something else.  We can turn the antennae on the head of the fly into a leg.  We can turn the mouthparts of the fly into a leg.  We can transform parts -- kind of 'gee whiz' science."

Well, gee whiz, Dr. Kaufman -- don't the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals protest outside the doors?  Uh-- not so much, for fruit flies.

"They have what I like to refer to as a very low Bambi coefficient," he explains.

The stock center is about to triple its capacity, using a $364,000 grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.  There could soon be 100-thousand fruit fly variants, all breeding away on the I-U campus.  And you thought there were enough flies in the world! 

Well, as the saying goes: Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana.  Preferably a rotten one….

From Bloomington Indiana... Barry Bernson, Fox41 News.

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