My name is Bethany Christmann, and I finished my Neuroscience PhD degree at Brandeis University, where I worked in the Griffith Lab. I studied how sleep and memory are connected in the brain of fruit flies, and how a small network of cells can cooperate to store long-term memory. Before Brandeis, I worked as a computer programmer for two years before being drawn to neuroscience like a fruit fly to fruit. I received a B.S. in Computer Science from the University of North Carolina at Asheville, although I became smitten with neuroscience after taking several classes outside of my major. Now, I work as a pharmaceutical market analyst for CNS disorders at Decision Resources, but I’ll never forget my fruit fly roots. Basic research will always be a critical first step to finding treatments for the problems that plague us.
About this blog
If you’re wondering how fruit fly research could be useful for humans, you are not alone. I started this blog to introduce fly science to a broader audience. I hope to make current research in flies more approachable to non-fly-scientists, as well as demonstrate how basic research in this animal model is translatable to higher organisms, including humans. I will also write about my experiences working in a fly lab so you can get an idea of a ‘day in the life’ of a researcher and her flies.
This blog contains three types of posts:
- Fly Life: What’s it like to work with flies? I’ll go into detail about the flies themselves, how researchers perform different types of experiments, and how various genetic tools work.
- Breaking research: I’ll summarize recently published original research articles that are advancing our basic scientific understanding.
- Translational findings: I’ll provide examples of how research in fruit flies has translated to mammalian systems, including those of humans.
About Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly)
You’ve seen these little guys before, always buzzing around the bananas in your fruit bowl no matter how hard you try to get rid of them. In fact, the traits that make them so hard to eradicate are some of the reasons why they are so great for research. Fruit flies live for about 30 days and have a short life cycle. Most females are ready to lay eggs within a day after emerging from their pupae, probably before you even noticed their presence in the kitchen. Each female can lay hundreds of eggs which are too small to see by eye—even the adult flies are too small to track them all down. But these are great traits for research. Their quick life cycle allows research to progress rapidly, and the large number of offspring makes maintaining a stock of flies easy and provides researchers with plenty of subjects. Even their small size is a benefit; scientists can keep hundreds of different fly stocks on a couple of shelves. And flies are cheap! Fly researchers readily share stocks and tools for free, and there are stock centers that maintain thousands of fruit fly lines which can be purchased at low cost.
There are other reasons why fruit flies are a good model organism. They have been used in research for over a century and are therefore well characterized. Fruit flies have a relatively small genome with only 4 pairs of chromosomes and approximately 15,500 genes (humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes and about 22,000 genes), and over the years researchers have developed an impressive array of genetic tools to manipulate their genome and perform a variety of experiments.
But wait, how are these tiny fruit flies related to humans? Many basic molecular and cellular processes are shared among all species, including humans, monkeys, rats, and the lowly fruit fly as a result of evolution. It has also been estimated that about 75% of known human disease genes have a match in the fruit fly genome, which means that researchers can study how abnormalities in these genes contribute to diseases without ethical concerns. In addition, fruit flies display many of the behaviors seen in mammals, such as learning, sleeping, and mating. Studying the relatively simple interactions between neurons that give rise to these behaviors in flies can allow researchers to gain insights into the similar interactions underlying those behaviors in more complex mammalian brains.
And all of this from those pesky insects buzzing around your bananas!
For more details on Drosophila melanogaster, check out my first post.