CLOSE
John Tann via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
John Tann via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

15 Fascinating Facts About Fruit Flies

John Tann via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
John Tann via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

The common fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, may seem like nothing more than a nuisance when your fruit gets too ripe, but medical research owes a great deal to this tiny little menace. Here are 15 fascinating facts about our fruit-loving buddies:

1. THEY LIVE AND DIE QUICKLY.

The fruit fly has a very rapid life cycle. Just one fertile mating pair can produce hundreds of genetically identical offspring within 10 to 12 days, so long as the temperature is at 25°C or higher.

2. YOU CAN THANK THE FRUIT FLY FOR MANY MAJOR MEDICAL BREAKTHROUGHS.

Because of these comparatively short life spans, fruit flies make for ideal lab subjects: Researchers can easily study genetic evolution over generations. By comparison, what scientists have learned about fruit flies in 30 years of study would have taken 200 years in mice. So for more than a century, fruit flies have been the stars of genetic research.

3. FRUIT FLIES HELPED SCIENTISTS DISCOVER GENETIC BASICS.

Thomas Hunt Morgan was one of the first to systematically study fruit flies at the turn of the century. Morgan was the first to confirm the chromosomal theory of inheritance—in essence, that genes are located on chromosomes “like beads on a string,” and that some genes are even linked, or inherited together. This work won Morgan the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1933.

4. THOUGH THEY'RE SMALL, FRUIT FLIES HAVE MANY GENES …

To put in context just how many genes fruit flies have, humans have 24,000 genes. Fruit flies, which are only a couple of millimeters long, have 14,000.

5. … WHICH COULD STILL TEACH US A LOT.

Scientists successfully sequenced the entire fruit fly genome in 2000. According to the Human Genome Project, “During the last century, fruit flies have yielded a wealth of information about how genes work. They have been used to discover the rules of inheritance and to study how a single cell, the fertilized egg, becomes a whole animal.”

6. HUMANS AND FRUIT FLIES ARE GENETICALLY SIMILAR.

A whopping 75 percent of the genes that cause diseases in humans are also found in the fruit fly. But don’t worry, you’re unlikely to reprise the horror flick The Fly anytime soon.

7. THAT'S WHY FRUIT FLIES CAN MODEL HUMAN DISEASE.

Because they have many of the same genes as humans, researchers can use fruit flies to simulate diseases that plague humans. For example, flies eating a lot of sugar also exhibit symptoms of type 2 diabetes. Researchers can also genetically modify fruit flies to study a variety of other conditions.

8. HOW DO THEY KEEP THEM FROM FLYING AWAY?

Researchers make fruit flies woozy with carbon dioxide before they let them out of their test tubes for study; otherwise, they’d wing off.

9. FRUIT FLY CHROMOSOMES RESEMBLE BARCODES.

Drosophila have polytene chromosomes, or barcode-like banding patterns of light and dark. This makes it easy for scientists to assess genetic rearrangements and deletions.

10. THE FEMALES STAY BUSY.

A female fruit fly lays 30 to 50 eggs per day throughout her lifetime at room temperature. When it’s cold, she may produce far fewer eggs.

11. SMALL INSECT, BIG BRAIN.

The brain of the adult fruit fly has more than 100,000 neurons that form discreet circuits and “mediate complex behaviors, including circadian rhythms, sleep, learning and memory, courtship, feeding, aggression, grooming, and flight navigation,” according to one study.

12. THEY DON'T JUST HELP MEDICINE: FRUIT FLIES ALSO MAKE YOUR BEER TASTE BETTER.

Fruit flies are masters of discernment when it comes to the yeasty flavors of beer. An experiment at Stanford found that fruit flies were attracted to beers with fruitier base yeasts, which tend to be the beers humans prefer as well.

13. FLIES SELF-MEDICATE WITH ALCOHOL TOO.

Sexually rejected male fruit flies also drown their sorrows. As reported in a study in the journal Science, the reward circuitry of fruit flies' brains, as in humans, gets a pleasurable boost from drinking alcohol. What's more, they may turn to it for reasons similar to humans: to make them feel better. A study done at the University of California, San Francisco found that the male fruit flies who had been rejected by females drank four times as much alcohol as the mated flies.

14. FRUIT FLIES GET THE BEST DRUGS.

Drosophila’s versatility is often used as a model to test the effects of new drugs on the biochemical pathways that are conserved within both fruit flies and humans.

15. RESEARCHERS HAVE DISCOVERED A NEW HEALING MECHANISM, THANKS TO FRUIT FLIES.

Using fruit flies as test subjects, researcher Vicki Losick recently discovered that in wounds, cells enlarge by polyploidization—or the multiplication of chromosomes—to compensate for cells that are lost. This suggests that cellular damage caused by wounds either leads to cell proliferation or cell growth, depending on context, changing our understanding of how the body reacts to injury.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Animals
Where Do Birds Get Their Songs?
iStock
iStock

Birds display some of the most impressive vocal abilities in the animal kingdom. They can be heard across great distances, mimic human speech, and even sing using distinct dialects and syntax. The most complex songs take some practice to learn, but as TED-Ed explains, the urge to sing is woven into songbirds' DNA.

Like humans, baby birds learn to communicate from their parents. Adult zebra finches will even speak in the equivalent of "baby talk" when teaching chicks their songs. After hearing the same expressions repeated so many times and trying them out firsthand, the offspring are able to use the same songs as adults.

But nurture isn't the only factor driving this behavior. Even when they grow up without any parents teaching them how to vocalize, birds will start singing on their own. These innate songs are less refined than the ones that are taught, but when they're passed down through multiple generations and shaped over time, they start to sound similar to the learned songs sung by other members of their species.

This suggests that the drive to sing as well as the specific structures of the songs themselves have been ingrained in the animals' genetic code by evolution. You can watch the full story from TED-Ed below, then head over here for a sample of the diverse songs produced by birds.

[h/t TED-Ed]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
arrow
Animals
Watch the First-Ever Footage of a Baby Dumbo Octopus
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dumbo octopuses are named for the elephant-ear-like fins they use to navigate the deep sea, but until recently, when and how they developed those floppy appendages were a mystery. Now, for the first time, researchers have caught a newborn Dumbo octopus on tape. As reported in the journal Current Biology, they discovered that the creatures are equipped with the fins from the moment they hatch.

Study co-author Tim Shank, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spotted the octopus in 2005. During a research expedition in the North Atlantic, one of the remotely operated vehicles he was working with collected several coral branches with something strange attached to them. It looked like a bunch of sandy-colored golf balls at first, but then he realized it was an egg sac.

He and his fellow researchers eventually classified the hatchling that emerged as a member of the genus Grimpoteuthis. In other words, it was a Dumbo octopus, though they couldn't determine the exact species. But you wouldn't need a biology degree to spot its resemblance to Disney's famous elephant, as you can see in the video below.

The octopus hatched with a set of functional fins that allowed it to swim around and hunt right away, and an MRI scan revealed fully-developed internal organs and a complex nervous system. As the researchers wrote in their study, Dumbo octopuses enter the world as "competent juveniles" ready to jump straight into adult life.

Grimpoteuthis spends its life in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to study. Scientists hope the newly-reported findings will make it easier to identify Grimpoteuthis eggs and hatchlings for future research.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios