Many who have stood by the fruit section in a supermarket have at some time or other noticed tiny flies hovering over the fruit. Fewer know, however, that these tiny creatures have for over a century played a significant part in scientific research, where they have shed light on various diseases inflicted upon humans.
"Thomas Hunt Morgan and associates at the Columbia University in New York began using the fly for scientific studies around the turn of the century 1900, for example to show that Mendel's laws of genetics also apply to animals, not just plants. They showed early on that genetic traits can be found in the chromosomes, and thus it was likely that they would also bear genetic material. The fruit fly’s history as a research resource is very interesting and is told in a film called the Fly Room," says Eiríkur Steingrímsson, Professor in medicine at the University of Iceland's Biomedical Centre.
The fruit fly is the most studied of all living creatures, mostly due to how small it is and low-maintenance. "The fly is simple to breed and each generation is only two weeks. It is easy to create mutations and genetic modifications making it possible for us to study pheontypes and genotypes easily. Furthermore the fly is multicellular with complex behaviour creating various research opportunities," adds Eiríkur.
It would take too long to list all the discoveries made due to this species. "It is, however, worth mentioning that many cell signals that are relevant in cancer were first found in the fruit fly and their role and activity defined by using the fly. It was also used to solve the enigma of how foetus development is controlled, which gave us important information on how cells work together and influence the operations of one another."
The research scientists at the Biomedical Centre have made use of this tiny creature to answer diverse questions. "Here it has been used ot answer questions on the operation of a certain protein that has mutated in individuals with hereditary cerebral hemorrhage. This is a rare mutation found in Icelanders and it has proven difficult to make an animal model for it. The fly has, furthermore, been used to study the effect of certain genes on the nervous system and at my research laboratory we have used the fly to examine the role and operation of MITF, a regulator protein that plays a key role in the creation of melanoma. Me, Margrét Ögmundsdóttir and Arnar Pálsson in collaboration with Francesca Pignoni, research scientist in the state of New York have recently used the fly to analyse what seems to be the original role of the MITF protein and showed that it is preserved from fly to man," Eiríkur concludes.