Drunken Fruit Flies, the Truth about Gangs, and other Great Science Discoveries

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Writer and researcher Meg Holohan scours stacks of academic journals and texts to bring you all the science you need to know. Here's this week's edition.

A Fruit Fly Walks Into a Bar

For years, I've harbored dreams of sitting in a lab and getting fruit flies drunk for a living. But it seems that a bunch of scientists at the University of California, San Francisco have beaten me to the (rum) punch. Ulrike Heberlein and Ammon Corl have been on the hunt for mutant fruit flies that can drink profusely without passing out. So, what helps a fruit fly hold its liquor? Apparently, it's a variation on a gene called "happyhour." (Who says scientists don't have a sense of humor!) Without an active happyhour gene, flies can party all night long. But when the researchers turn the gene on, the fruit flies get drunk, pass out, and wake up hung-over (often regretting dancing on the bar and sending all those late night texts).Of course, the reality is that the similarities between fruit flies and their human bar fly cousins are staggering. According to Heberlein, "They go through a phase of hyperactivity and they gradually become uncoordinated; they stop moving and they fall over; and eventually they are unable to right themselves." The hopes are that by understanding the gene, researchers will have insights on creating a medication to treat alcoholism in humans.

Impressing the Chicks

Picture 5When it comes to wowing the ladies, hummingbirds don't just rely on their lovely plumage; instead the little birds fly, hard. Researchers at the University of California, Berkley found that most male Anna hummingbirds pull more g's during a dive than any other vertebra outside of a fighter jet. And unlike human pilots, hummingbirds don't black out when the reach their fastest speeds. These little magenta bombers dive as many as 15 times past female hummingbirds at speeds averaging 61 miles per hour. Just like the cocky pilots in Top Gun, these little showoffs figure that ladies love men who need to speed.

The Truth about Math

Forget what Barbie said about girls hating math. Janet Hyde and Janet Mertz, two professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have published a study that refutes the claim that boys are naturally better than girls at science and math. In fact, they discovered that girls perform as well as boys when given the same attention: "We conclude that gender inequality, not lack of innate ability or 'intrinsic aptitude,' is the primary reason fewer females than males are identified as excelling in mathematics performance in most countries, including the United States." Hyde and Mertz based their findings on a statistical analysis of the World Economic Forum's Gender Gap Index, which ranked nations according to equity in work, education, political achievement, and health. Girls growing up in countries with more gender equity perform at levels closer to or equal to males. They also found that girls were capable of performing math at "˜genius levels' when given the proper attention.

This Gang is My Gang, This Gang is Your Gang

For decades, scientists have debated whether it's nature or nurture that causes teens to join gangs and act like hooligans. Well, chalk up another point for nature. After studying the DNA of over 2,500 adolescents, researchers at Florida State University have determined that boys with a distinct gene variation (on the gene Monoamine Oxidase A, or MAOA) are more likely to join gangs, tote guns and engage in violent behavior. Also known as the "warrior gene", MAOA regulates neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, meaning the gene is not only important in controlling moods, but also linked to a variety of mental illnesses and antisocial behaviors. Interestingly, it's only men who are driven to join gangs when carrying the MAOA mark. Women who bear the genetic variation are actually less likely to pack heat or engage in the thug life.

From Robot Maid to Robot Best Friend

Picture 10Getting a robot to clean up after you has never been a problem; getting it to care about your day has. But apparently, researchers at the EU-funded JAST project may have just made an emotional breakthrough. They've developed a robot that doesn't just learn how to perform tasks, but also assesses situations and responds based on its perception of how its partner will respond. The difference between this robot and others is that it does not have to know the outcome to predict the response. This kind of adaptive and predictive behavior matches humans' use of mirror neurons (neurons found in primates that allow for empathy and mimicking behavior.) For now this robot can only function in the lab, but researchers say if it learns better manners, it might be unleashed on the world.

June 30, 2009 - 11:30am
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