FRUIT FLIES AND SLEEPING BEAUTY

You should have noticed the apple in the bottom of the fruit bowl was bruised.  Now it’s underside is liquefied.  How do you know without digging down to the glop?  Jostle the bowl, and a cloud of Drosophila melanogaster will give you the rotting fruit alert.

Those of us who make compost know these little creatures well, and while I do what I can to discourage an infestation on my kitchen, I actually like to see them rise up in a cloud from  the outside bin when I make my daily deposit.  If the sun hits them right, each tiny insect glows.  It’s almost like fireworks.

Some people raise fruit flies on purpose to feed their pet reptiles and amphibians.  They exchange recipies for fruit fly media like Betty Crocker for bugs.   And scientists raise fruit flies for research.  At the UW-Madison, one central fruit fly kitchen cooks up the meals for labs all over campus and delivers just like a pizza place.

I’m thinking about fruit flies  now because I bumped into them while working on an article about sleep research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  (I’ll link it to my blog when it’s published in a few weeks.)

Fruit flies swarm any campus with active research.  On the genetic level, we have a lot in common with these little fellows, and they have been instrumental in breakthroughs in

...As admirable as these little wonders are, if you want to get them ot of yor kitchen, you can trap them with a paper funnel over a jar filled with cider vinegar, then release them to the great outdoors. (photo credit http://www.flickr.com/photos/stringbot/229802351/)

cancer

birth defects

development of the respiratory and circulatory systems

cardiovascular development and disease

sight

smell

hearing

learning

memory

brain disease

aging

diabetes

I didn’t expect to see fruit flies playing a key role in sleep research, but there they are – sleeping for science.  Sleep pioneers Giulio Tononi and Chiara Cirelli are using them to understand the function of sleep.

One reason fruit flies are so poplar is that animal rights activists have not rallied to their defense.  A lot of sleep research was originally conducted on cats because they will sleep at any time, but who among us cat lovers likes to think about our little friends being caged and even worse splayed on the dissecting table?

I think I rank pretty high on the fruit fly appreciation meter (finding them beautiful, useful and mostly harmless), but I’m not going to complain if a big, shaking machine is keeping them up past their bedtime for science.  Or even sticking a teensy weensy probe into their brains, which Tononi and Cirelli have actually accomplished.

Before they could use that little work horse for sleep research, they had to prove that fruit flies do, indeed sleep — and they did.  At night flies become immobile.  During this period, they do not respond to shadows moving over them or slight jostling.  They sleep more when they are young.  You can give them caffeine, and they stay awake.  Give them antihistamine, and they go to sleep.  If you keep them up late one night, they will sleep more the next day.

Interesting trivia tidbit:  male fruit flies all take a siesta.  Females do not.

They can be tested for alertness, and underslept flies are less alert.

...Life goes on even -- or perhaps especially -- in the compost bin.

(If you would like to test your own alertness, check out this psychomotor vigilance test from the Sleep Disorders Center in Florida.)

Having neglected to take the day’s coffee grounds, peach pits and onion peels out last night (compromising my own sleep to watch the latest PBS mystery Inspector Lewis taped on Sunday), I took them out early this morning and tossed them in to my compost bin.  No cloud of tiny gossamer wings erupted.  They were all getting their beauty sleep.

Sweet dreams, Drosophila.  And thank you.

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