Why study flies?
Here at the University of Sheffield Fly Facility we use the fruit fly as a model organism to study a wide variety of biological processes.
Many of these processes are conserved in other animals, including mammals, so the fruit fly provides a powerful tool to understand the molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying development, physiology and ageing of other animals including our own species.
This strategy has led to important contributions of Drosophila research to the identification of molecular pathways associated with human disease. It is estimated that 75% of genes that cause human disease have an equivalent gene in Drosophila, allowing direct manipulation and in depth study of these pathways using flies.
Over 100 years of research devoted to the study of the fruit fly means that a remarkable amount is already known about how its genes contribute to its biological function.
More importantly genetics tools developed in the Drosophila community over the past decades allow the very precise study of any physiological process.
These tools include, for example, visualising transcription of specific genes in real time, manipulating gene expression in specific tissues and at specific times, reading and writing neural activity to specific neurons in the brain, and a range of human disease models.
Large scale data
The fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster was one of the first animal species to have its complete genome sequenced, in 2000 (Adams et al, 2000).
Following this many different Drosophila species and lines have had their whole genome and transcriptome sequenced adding to the wealth of information available.
In addition, researchers are reconstructing the complete ‘connectome’ of the fruit fly brain - that is, mapping out all the connections between every neuron in the brain. This information is already leading to new insights into how the fly brain works – and thus eventually to new insights into how the human brain works.
Small nature of flies
The small nature of flies means we can store and care for millions of flies at any one time in a fairly small amount of lab space. We can also observe a fly’s entire lifespan within a few weeks and generations of flies in a few months.
To carry out this work on rodents would require many more labs, years of time and much more expense. Using Drosophila as a genetic model makes it possible for us to learn about healthy biological processes and disease much faster and in more detail.
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