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Making fly science approachable for everyone

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“Why do we have to learn this stuff?” — establishing Drosophila as a MODERN teaching tool in schools

This guest post is written by Dr. Andreas Prokop from the University of Manchester. He is passionately engaged in Drosophila-related outreach activities and science communication and writes here about the importance of using fruit flies in the classroom and calls on other fruit fly researchers to help develop strategies to achieve this goal.

Drosophila clearly is the animal in which biology is conceptually best understood. But how well do we sell this fact to the public and in schools? Certainly, Drosophila is far more than an animal substitute for Mendel’s peas, and the recent post by Bethany gives wonderful examples of what can be done with flies as modern and effective teaching tools in class rooms. The enormous power of bringing Drosophila into schools becomes unmistakably clear when talking to members of the public: those who experienced flies in schools, even decades ago, tend to respond with noticeably greater curiosity and interest to fly-related topics than those without such memories. Importantly, there are many biology specifications of the curriculum that can be explained extremely well using flies – and this can usually be spiced up with exciting, simple and cheap experiments that are likely to stick in pupils’ minds for the future. However, in this scenario, flies should not necessarily dominate but rather be used as teaching tools wherever they can help teachers to achieve a lesson’s learning objectives. Learning modern biology through flies, shoulder-to-shoulder with related human examples, clearly conveys the value of simple invertebrate model organisms without any further need to emphasise and explain. If we can establish flies in this way as modern teaching tools in schools, this will in the long term be more powerful than labour-intense Drosophila days at schools organised by scientists, and will have a chance to be applied on a far larger scale.

In Manchester, we are experimenting with the above ideas very successfully. However, it has become clear that a key challenge is the creation of resources for teachers. Such resources will only work if they are concise, explained in simple terms and conceptually mature, so that they meet the needs of busy teachers in each and every aspect and help them gain quick understanding which they can then pass on to their students. To acquire the necessary expertise for this task, we have started to place PhD students for several weeks as active teacher assistants in schools, which allows them to experience school realities first, before generating adequate and tailor made resources. However, this is only one strategy and more effort is needed. It would therefore be great if other members of the fly community contributed, thus generating a wider choice of materials to meet the individual needs and personal tastes of a greater range of teachers. If you are interested in this kind of activity and are attending the American Drosophila Research Conference in 2015 in Chicago, please come to the Drosophila science communication workshop to discuss possible strategies.

Clearly, long-term strategies are needed if we want to promote the wider understanding of invertebrate model organisms, thus also addressing the current downturn in Drosophila funding recently highlighted by Hugo and his colleagues. Tragically, this decline occurs in times where Drosophila research is perhaps more urgently needed than ever, when considering that Human Genetics and “omics” approaches bring up more questions than could possibly be answered without the fly. Starting in schools addresses this problem at its roots and lays important foundations for the future. But there is also personal benefit from these activities: engaging with the public in any way (and this clearly includes engagement at schools!) helps to develop the right arguments that work with members of the public – hence, naturally, also with members on grant panels! In my experience, it forces one to think about the essentials of one’s science leading to new ideas and thoughts, thus becoming a win-win activity that pays off in two directions.


Fly Human ComparisonWhy Drosophila can be used to explain fundamental and even human biology or biology of disease: Humans share a surprising amount in common with Drosophila. In particular, the genes that tell cells how to divide, develop, and function and what the basic body plan should look like are often the same as in humans. This new understanding yielded a wealth of exciting discoveries – even about the brain and the processes of learning and memory – and about mechanisms of disease (taken from the short educational film “Small fly – BIG impact“)


Interesting links:

Fly Life: Fruit flies in the science classroom

Do you remember sitting in the science classroom in grade school, looking at pictures of pea plants to learn about inheritance? What if you could have tested Gregor Mendel’s theories of inheritance yourself (without watching plants grow)?

Well, you can! As it turns out, fruit flies are a great teaching resource for the science classroom. They are cheap, easy to maintain and store, and are well-understood, since they’ve been studied by researchers for over a century. These characteristics allow teachers to set up hands-on experiments for their students, and quickly adapt to students’ curiosity-driven questions.

Fruit flies can be used for teaching a variety of scientific concepts, from genetics to behavior, and the related experiments can be engaging, fun, and easy to understand. I want to talk about some of my favorite examples (some of which have gone from science fair projects to published peer-reviewed articles!).

Inheritance and Evolution

Punnet square for red- and white-eyed fliesAn example of a punnet square for mating a white-eyed and red-eyed fly. The white eye is caused by a sex-linked recessive genetic mutation. Male offspring have white eyes because they only have one copy of the gene (the mutation) from the white-eyed “mother”, while female offspring have a backup normal “red” copy inherited from the “father”.

Do you remember doing the punnet squares for Mendel’s pea plants? Punnet squares are diagrams used to predict what traits offspring will inherit from two different parents, and is the most common way to teach inheritance in the classroom. Fruit flies, with their short lifespan and quick generation time (offspring are available in only two weeks!), are perfect for a hands-on version of this experiment. Flies with different traits (such as red eyes and white eyes, or curly wings and straight wings) can be mated. While waiting for the next generation, students can predict what percentage of the offspring will have each trait. Two weeks later, they can sort the flies to test their predictions.

UNC’s The Wonderful Fruit Fly website is great for seeing how punnet square experiments can be performed with fruit flies.

Red- vs white-eyed fliesThe fly on the top has a mutation that causes white eyes. The fly on the bottom has normal red eyes. source

Another great example for an experiment was described in an article published in the journal Evolution. Because multiple generations of fruit flies can be studied in a matter of months, students can actually see evolution “in action”. In the published example, students added a single red-eyed fly to a large population of white-eyed flies. Flies with white eyes have poor eyesight and are less healthy than flies with red eyes. Over the course of the experiment, students watched as the healthier red-eye gene spread through the population, simulating the way a random advantageous mutation in nature can spread via natural selection.

This is only a couple of the dozens of interesting genetic experiments that can be performed in class. For more examples, the Tree of Life web project site is a great resource. 

Behavior and Health

Dyed food experimentFlies that eat dyed food have colored abdomens. Image modified from Isono and Morita, 2010.

Although fruit flies are most commonly associated with genetics experiments, they can also be used for behavioral experiments. One of my favorite examples is testing flies for food preference, in which students can give a group of flies a choice between two or more food sources, and count the number of flies that land on each. To make it even more interesting, the food can be dyed different colors. Once ingested, the dye is visible through the flies’ abdomens, allowing students to count how many flies have chosen each food based on color. Wouldn’t it be cool to see blue and purple flies under a microscope?!

Food preference experiments from middle school science fairs have actually made the news a couple of times over the past two years. In 2013, student Ria Chhabra developed an experiment to test whether organic food really is better than conventional food. She raised flies on each type, and found that flies raised with organic foods lived longer and healthier lives. The results were published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PLoS One.

A similar story was released in 2014, when student Simon Kaschock-Marenda wondered whether fruit flies would like artificial sweeteners as much as normal sugar. He raised flies on sugar and several different sweeteners, including Truvia. His results, also published in PLoS One, showed that erythritol, the main ingredient of Truvia, was actually toxic to fruit flies.

These two heartwarming stories demonstrate how fruit flies can be used in the classroom to inspire students to pursue curiosity-driven science.

Want to start using flies in your classroom? There are many resources available online for experiment ideas, as well as “How-to” guides for setting up and maintaining a fly lab. One of the most comprehensive is the “How-to Fly Manual” from the researchers at the University of Manchester’s Fly Facility.  Another great resource is the “Drosophila Melanogaster in the classroom” blog, which details how to set up a classroom using fruit flies.  


Many thanks to my friend Brittney for her help with resources and ideas for this post, gathered from her own volunteer experiences teaching fruit fly science to eager young minds.

I would also like to thank Dr. Andreas Prokop at the University of Manchester for some of the resources and inspiration for this post.  He and other fly researchers at the University of Manchester maintain an impressive array of lay information about fruit fly research and resources on their website (not just about how flies can be used in the classroom, but also how flies can be used to conduct high-quality research in disadvantaged regions and countries, where resources and funds may be limited).


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