Greta Friar | Whitehead Institute
August 4, 2021
All the buzz in the lab
On a sunny summer morning in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Mariyah Saiduddin walked into a room and was met by the sight of thousands of fruit flies. For most people, this would be an emergency: time to call an exterminator, take out the trash, and scrub the room from top to bottom. However, this room full of flies is part of Whitehead Institute Director Ruth Lehmann’s lab, where fruit flies are seen not as pests but as valuable research tools—and are safely contained in vials. Saiduddin is a graduate student researcher in Lehmann’s lab who uses a fraction of the flies in the room in her research.
The flies found in Lehmann’s lab, and in the adjacent lab run by Whitehead Institute Member Yukiko Yamashita, are not exactly like their less-beloved wild counterparts. Fruit flies have been used in research for more than a century, and in that time, they have been engineered to become powerful, malleable models capable of answering questions in many areas of research. The most common species used in research is Drosophila melanogaster, often referred to simply as “Drosophila.” The researchers who use flies call themselves Drosophilists, and their community around the world works together to maintain a rich variety of flies and create new tools with which to manipulate those flies. In the past century, work in fruit flies has led to six Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine, and has shed light on topics from the basics of genetics, to the principles of embryonic development, to circadian rhythms, to the immune system, to a plethora of diseases.
A very fly model organism
Fruit flies became a go-to research tool during the explosion of genetics research around the turn of the 20th century. What makes them such a good model organism? First of all, they are easy and relatively cheap to raise in large numbers. They have short lifespans and quick reproduction times, so researchers can rapidly breed and study multiple generations. Fruit flies are ready to reproduce—growing from embryo to larva to adult—in under two weeks and then can lay hundreds of eggs in a matter of days.