‘Drosiphila melanogaster’

‘Genes shared with fly, worm and yeast:  IPI.1 contains apparent homologues of 61% of the fly proteome.’ Human Genome Sequencing Consortium

‘The fruit fly is the third major type of organism to have its genetic code sequenced after yeast and the soil worm Caenorhabditis elegans. The human genome is nearing completion and scientists are enthralled at the contrasts and comparisons that can be made between these lifeforms. Their genomes show just how closely related are all living things on Earth. Although the last common ancestor of humans, fruit flies, worms and yeast lived over a billion years ago, there are still many genes we share that betray our common heritage. About 30% of fruit fly genes crop up in C. elegans and 20% of fly genes can be found in yeast. Scientists sense mystery in the vast tracts of genes and DNA that have unknown functions. Many of them play an essential role in life that we do not yet realise. So it is with the 180m base pairs of the fruit fly genome. It is a new world.’  Dr David Whitehouse, BBC Online Science Editor

‘Flies and people are just variations on a theme of how to build a body that was laid down in some worm-like creature in the Cambrian period. They still retain the same genes doing the same job… this incredible conservation of embryological genetics took everybody by surprise. ..the similarity is so mind-blowing that when it first came to light few embryologists believed it… Geneticists can knock out a gene in a fly by deliberately mutating it, replace it by genetic engineering with the equivalent gene from a human being and grow a normal fly. The technique is known as genetic rescue. Human Hox genes can rescue their fly equivalent, as can Otx and Emx (mouse) genes. Indeed, they works so well that it is often impossible to tell which flies have been rescued with human genes and which with fly genes. Genes are just chunks of software that can run on any system; they use the same code and do the same jobs. Even after 530 million years of separation, our computer can recognise a fly’s software and vice versa.’ Matt Ridley, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Fourth Estate, 2000

‘’Am not I/ A fly like thee?/ Or art not thou/ A man like me?’ William Blake 1757-1827, The Fly

‘There is information about how infection attacks the body and how cells develop and how cancer starts. These are just some of the scientific spin-offs from sequencing the genome of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. Humans and fruit flies are closely related. Of the fly's 13,601 genes, scientists believe that possibly two-thirds may have counterparts in humans. If we understand how these genes work in the fruit fly then we gain understanding about how they work in ourselves. No wonder the fruit fly has become the classic lab model…’ BBC Online Science

‘O! would the Sons of Men once think their Eyes/ And Reason giv’n them but to study Flies?’ Alexander Pope, 1688-1744, The Dunciad

Fruit Fly, Drosiphila melanogaster

‘Scientists are already mining the rich data set that is the fruit fly genome It is a quest that will benefit medicine and enhance our understanding of the nature of life itself…’  Dr David Whitehouse, BBC Online Science Editor

Vibrating black pearl of Nature, darkly

fashioned - patent, nurtured by decay -

his haloes were glazed by first light,

thickened from stardust, still silver

in unjudging sun - disgusting brother

sucking detritus, Uriah-arms rubbing,

disingenuously humble, coy;

not loving flowers and honey,

but bridesmaid of death,

handmaiden of disease -

what darkness seeded us,

swarmed us thus, hatched

in composting plot, vomiting oratorio,

smelling rotten apples’ sweet muster,

bypassing flowers’ pure sugar,

peacock feathers, warm hearts;

this is his redemption -

to become white skeleton

supporting music – thought -

listening in his dancing walk;

once we remembered original light

enough to explore bright ceilings –

earth mothering us more comfortably -

now relatives of whom we are ashamed,

they will irritate us, zig-zooming back -

gyroscope our heads with tortuous flight;

making us share the ways of death -

dark arts beneath; scavenge, recycle,

hammer molecules into shining skeleton,

black armour against sweetness, or love -

admiring dinner plate eyes, short dark poem,

stripped brittle beyond beauty - exoskeleton;

blue blood like the running inks of space,

to black root molecule, huge fruit burden.

Human Hox genes can rescue their fly equivalent, as can Otx and Emx (mouse) genes.’ Matt Ridley, Genome

What bright infection sparkles still -

imploded temples of stuffy darkness;

wings stolen into sealed stumps,

feet sliding from ceilings, walls,

Lucifer-plunging to be prisoners of air,

heavy cripples, grounded not rescued -

the warm red abomination of white music -

our light was not of stars, but space among,

polluting our cells, singing in the script,

stinking of flowers, freshness; anathema

to the shining fly soul - most black -

holy as darkness, detachment of black

from coded night, where written the slug -

scorpion and wasp, many-wedded to sting

and bitterness; this marking his body -

you would make him a Bumble Bee,

humble, bumbling – a bobbing toy-boy

of fancy-women flowers, honey-guzzler,

truck with humans, our black sheep,

sappy homo sapiens, most despised;

sludgy fudge-mush - gooey blue-eye -

mooey muck-eye, hunchback cripples,

inculcating their contamination,

sicknesses of communication -

torture of love we have never known,

among all the dark workings we gave.

It is the humble fruit fly we must thank for the elucidation of many of the basic principles of genetics… at the level of embryology we are glorified flies…to this day, science knows far more about the genes of fruit flies than people…it was like being able to shine a bright light on the human genome.’ Matt Ridley, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Fourth Estate, 2000

‘Such experiments, like knocking out a key gene, would be unethical to perform on humans but very practical and easy to do with fruit flies. We can investigate the effects of single genes, and combinations of genes that control whole chemical pathways. It will be a revolution.’ Dr David Whitehouse, BBC Online Science Editor

Bred for a century, geneticist’s pet;

flying laboratory of broken genes -

brutal evolution by irradiation, mutation

of leg, wing - breeding human centuries

in twitch of an eye; shared secrets winkled

from his generous cycles of eggs and death.

Mapping the conserved human fragments,

neatly packed in his tiny, shiny black case;

miniature DVD, portable storage - living

toolkit to take ourselves apart, dissemble,

reassemble; observe in the plastic hand

of Nature, her live experiments. Black

spark, burning gene coal, fossilising

donkey’s years quickly as an egg -

we know a kinder god - experimental

earth informs our flowery love of light;

but we still know how that feels, underneath,

to be buzzing at windows, wings healed over.

‘If the insects had hit on a plan for driving air through their tissues instead of letting it suck in, they might well have become as large as lobsters.’ JBS Haldane, Possible Worlds and Other Essays, Chatto & Windus, 1927

‘The complexity of the nerve-structures for vision is even in the insect something incredibly stupendous…The intricacy of the connexions defies description. Before it the mind halts, abased….one wonders whether what we disdainfully term ‘instinct’ (Bergson’s ‘intuition’) is not, as Jules Fabre claims, life’s crowning mental gift. Mind with instant and decisive action, the mind which in these tiny and ancient beings reached its blossom ages ago and earliest of all.’ Santiago Ramon y Cajal, Neurologist

‘…meet Dunce. Dunce is a mutant fruit fly incapable of learning that a certain smell is always followed by an electric shock…it was the first in a string of ‘learning mutants’ to be discovered by giving irradiated flies simple tasks and breeding from those that could not manage the tasks. Other mutants called cabbage, amnesiac, rutabaga, radish and turnip soon followed… In all seventeen learning mutations have now been found in flies…the genes that were ‘broken’ in these mutants were all involved in making or responding to cyclic AMP…Tully then reasoned that if he could knock out the flies’ ability to learn, he could alter or enhance it as well. By removing the gene for the CREB protein, he created a fly that could learn, but not remember it had learnt… And he soon developed a strain of fly that learnt so fast that it got the message after a single lesson whereas other flies needed ten lessons…Tully described these flies as having photographic memories…Tully believes that CREB lies at the heart of learning and memory mechanisms, a sort of master gene that switches on other genes.’ Matt Ridley, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Fourth Estate, 2000

It’s not much fun being a Fruit Fly

What a bummer being born a Fruit Fly -

Experimented on and then you die -

We know we’re not popular with scientists because of our looks,

Great aerial superiority, as a low cost pet, our liking for fruits -

We know they’ve got more sinister things in mind -

Irradiation, mutation - that’s why they’re so fond of my kind;

Because we have particular talent for speedy breeding,

We can’t talk back, don’t take much feeding…

There’s no fooling me -

I’m a ‘CREB’ gene experiment fly, you see,

Bred to remember, learn everything I find,              

I should really be on Mastermind

But take my little cousin ‘Dunce’,

He can’t remember anything, even once;

My brother ‘Turnip’ is something the same,

My other cousins ‘Cabbage’, ‘Radish’, well, you can tell from the name -

Do you find their names remotely polite?

Quite frankly I think that’s really… shite,

After all the help we’ve given you -

If we weren’t flies, we’d certainly sue;

Sprouting legs where we should have had wings,

Expecting antennae, then sproing, a wing, out it pings -

We’ve even had wings put on back to front,

But even that doesn’t save us from insult -

And they take every prize

Earned by flies!

And just because we have a natural liking for poo,

Nobody even bothers to say ‘Thank You’…

But we’re really quite good at jumping genes -

I don’t think you’ve truly understood what this means;

Revenge is a concept introduced to us by man -

(Though Dunce and the others can’t remember the plan) -

We started off just the same,

But you got the white coat, power, nice name,

But genes don’t care if it’s a man or a fly,

They just want to survive, get by;

A fly can be grown with an implanted human gene…

I think you’re starting to see what I mean -

I’ve been doing a few experiments of my own,

Vice-versa is true in theory, but not yet known,

I’ve been made so intelligent I’m virtually sure -

Just don’t be surprised if one day soon you want to eat manure…

‘Fly… He costs nothing, needs no special attention,/ Just gets on with the job, totting up the dirt….He too wishes he had some other job./ But this is his duty./ Just let him be.’ Fly Inspects, Ted Hughes, Uncollected

‘As Michelangelo’s mind moved upon silence ‘Like a long-legged fly upon the stream’…what might he not have painted if he had known the contents of one nerve cell from a long-legged fly.’ Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, Penguin, 1998

‘Even the differences are illuminating. Fruit flies have no lungs. They absorb oxygen from the atmosphere through holes in their sides. This has resulted in the insect evolving a particular kind of haemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying molecule in its bloodstream This haemoglobin molecule is not susceptible to the same diseases and defects such as those that cause thalassaemia in humans. Understanding why the blood of a fruit fly works this way may just help us understand why humans develop the blood diseases they do. Cancer is another area that may benefit. It appears that about 70% of known cancer-causing genes in humans are present in the fruit fly genome. Knocking them out one by one to see what effect it has on the fruit fly will be illuminating. Fruit flies have some of the genes that in humans are involved in Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease. But as far as we know, the fruit fly does not suffer from these ailments. So why does it have these genes and what do they do?’ Dr David Whitehouse, BBC Online Science Editor

Even the disgusting fly, the hellish bluebottle

Even the disgusting fly, the hellish bluebottle,

bursting purple blood - trapped, torturing air,

swarming corpses in shining black and green,

peacock anti-light; washing his gas-mask face,

so fastidious, with butterfly stroke - swimming

acres of air for the cloying sweetness of death,

as gold bees seek the perfumed love of flowers,

dead blood nectar, honey of decay; night elixirs

returning flesh to mother-worm, mother-earth –

such dark sparkling on the wind, arcane process

vacuuming specks, combating anti-matter with

dark neutralising particles – in plastic molecules

infesting dark crucibles, splurging receptacles;

re-cycling winged cylinder of black mechanics,

wild shred of tiny dark angel - flip-side, reverse

of lamb-angel, butterfly-guardian - eagle-angel

high cast in burning gold, wings sculpted

personally by holy hands with learned art -

but much compact glory, Man-son patterns

practised in the small dark fire - rehearsing

the silver wing that grows even in filth,

in wounds - bursting from degradation,

putrefication; yet something will fly up -

everything remembers the stars at root.

He is cousin, brother - driven into existence

by Creation’s absolute force, abandonment

of beauty’s fair side if it will work, achieve -

on dark fringes, with shiver-spiders spinning

silver star-geometry from silk-steel bellies -

Vampire Bats sucking live red cattle blood

under the bright black eyes of shamed night;

fabulous sonar honed in ruthless experiment

of explosive, tenacious Nature. Even in death, decay,

she will have her creatures - learn, survive, bequeath.

Fly’s terrible love of death, foul wriggling children –

uglier yet than herself, as no right mother should find;

in the dirtied corners of the world - Earth’s bins,

which, nothing wasted in this ecological system,

are to the fly green fields, white beds, nurseries -

pus is as dripping gold, ambrosia; blood is wine.

Our repulsion is measured by underlying gain -

in the tiny dark stars of his brain, simple script,

lie answers, maps; under airless blood, flushing

black, an old charcoal sketch of a lung disease –

fossilised cure; his dark acts are horrifying clues

to our terrible attractions - his eyes should be set

as pearls, body emerald and jet; we must honour

his sacrifice, wearing him like a mourning brooch.

‘..although Galileo demonstrated the contrary more than three hundred years ago, people still believe that if a flea were as large as a man, it could jump a thousand feet in the air.’ JBS Haldane, Possible Worlds and Other Essays, Chatto & Windus, 1927

‘Nature or nurture – is sexuality genetically encoded or is it learned? A team at Glasgow is investigating the relationship between genes and sexuality in the fruit fly. Sexuality, that powerful and most mysterious of forces, has always been a good candidate for lively discussion – nowhere more so than in the arena of genetics and behaviour. Recent studies suggesting there is a genetic component to homosexuality, for example, have provoked huge controversy in the media, and the debate continues unabated. "On the one hand, brain formation and function must be controlled in part by genes – so it's hard to see how they can fail to have an impact on all aspects of our personalities, including our sexual behaviour," says Dr Stephen Goodwin at the University of Glasgow. "On the other hand, understanding how genes influence something as complex and individual as sexuality – proving that a single gene or genetic mutation controls a precise, discernible aspect of behaviour – is notoriously difficult." Dr Goodwin and his team are investigating the relationship between genes and sexuality in the fruit fly, Drosophila. "Flies are less complex than humans, and their sexual behaviour is easier to watch and measure because it is very stereotypical: every step is precisely known. The male shows off. He vibrates his wings to create a courtship 'song' and chases the female, who is coy and runs away. The male touches and licks her and eventually, if he does all the right things, she allows him to copulate with her." Previous studies have shown that much of fly sexual behaviour is genetically determined. "If you rear isolated males and females in separate vials then put them together they immediately begin courting, so we know this behaviour is innate, it's not learned. However, before we get carried away with genetic determinism, we should appreciate that Drosophila sexual performance, just like humans, is affected by all sorts of environmental factors and is modifiable by good and bad experiences.’  Wellcome Trust, 2003

Just buzz oaf

Just buzz oaf - stoap showin aff,

ya great big gallumpin’ gollum -

daen that wee bit dance like some croass

atween a gorilla an a tone deef peacoke –

whit ir ye like, man, struttin yir stuff -

an yir Next Man shirt; aye, fir a lassie,

mair like - whoever said y’were good

in flooers wiz wrang –  bunch o bees

is a yir likely tae pull, ir an auld gurl

wi an interest in gardenin. An stoap

singin fir Goad’s sake, fancying yirsel as

Rabbie Williams like - but it’s nae angels

ye bring tae mind. A ken noo why it’s flies,

they say - lads swarmin a aroon the lassies

like flies - buzzing aboot, showin’ aff, just

waitin tae get yir tongue doon their throats

like a drunk’n humminburd doon a flooer –

aye, some might think it’s tae far-fetched,

a this genetic stuff; but they clearly havnae

been oot much oan Saturday night, observin

courtship rituals doon here –

this place dras them like poo.

‘…Every Drosophila gene mutation is given a name, and Dr Gill christened his flies 'fruity'. Inspired by a Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner comedy sketch, Jeff Hall at Brandeis University renamed the mutation the more politically correct 'fruitless'. The new name reflects another idiosyncratic aspect of the mutant flies: although they court both other males and females indiscriminately, they never actually copulate with members of either sex. "There seems to be a way but no will," says Dr Goodwin. "All the physiology appeared in place – they go through the motions – but for some unknown reason they stop short and don’t go through with it." Dr Goodwin and his team, in collaboration with Jeff Hall's lab, are investigating how the fruitless gene influences the development of the nervous system and ultimately how it works to control the emergence of particular male behaviours.’ Wellcome Trust, 2003

‘Fruity’ the Fruit Fly; brilliant, eh!

Like my child’s mouse, ‘Mousey’,

pink teddy - ‘Pink Teddy’; or ‘Ratty’,

‘Batty’, ‘Catty’, and ‘Rabbit Rabbit’,

though this particular Lothario fly

dances the dance, walks the walk,

but ultimately practises, only Courtly Love –

perhaps there’ll be interest from the Military.

Though he brings to mind a games show host,

prancing and dancing to any double innuendo -

with no intention of coming, sorry, to fruition;

the consummate flirt who never consummates,

shakes his buns and puns at all and sundry,

has all the equipment - but keeps it sealed

inside the toolbox; rattles his seeds

but never plants - no wonder, poor

thing, he is also known as ‘fruitless’ –

cruel, but functional, horribly accurate.

Is he the world’s most frustrated creature?

off-switch flicked at just the vital moment,

unable to mate - no will, as it were, in his willie -

a gene definitely not something witnessed in man,

though could perhaps be adapted for any husband,

boyfriend miles away from home? A gene named

‘Faithful’, ‘Zipperless’, or

maybe, even - ‘Dickless’?

‘Biologists have produced a detailed map of protein interactions in a complex organism - the fruit fly. Proteins, which are made by genes, are the building blocks of tissues as well as the basis for molecular interactions that enable an organism to live. The protein interaction map will allow a new insight into a highly complex metabolic system, similar in many ways to the human one…Scientists, from the US biotech company CuraGen in association with several US Universities, have produced a draft map of 20,405 interactions between 7,048 proteins in the fruit fly. This map is a starting point for what is being called a systems biology modelling of animals including humans, say the researchers in their report. For decades the fruit fly has been opening the door to a better understanding of genetics. Its small genetic blueprint or genome, small size and short lifespan has made it an invaluable aid to study how genes work. It also has many of its genes in common with humans and so has provided a way to study human diseases. Now this lowly organism is showing the direction research is taking after the human genome has been decoded.’ BBC, 2003

‘The Science publication is a real tour de force in systems biology…The vast amount of important new information reported in this paper will provide researchers around the globe with productive avenues to pursue for years to come. Much of our understanding of the complex biochemical pathways that underlie human disease has been derived from the study of the fruit fly, and having the opportunity to integrate this huge proteomic dataset with prior knowledge of this well-studied organism will be a boon to the understanding of normal biology, as well as human disease.’ Richard Lifton, CuraGen and Yale University School of Medicine, US

‘Knowing a fly only has slightly fewer genes than me doesn't make me feel degraded – they are pretty complex things; they have four wings and can fly – I can't do that." Martin Bobrow, Professor, Medical Genetics, Cambridge University, UK

Famous Flies – half of ‘The Fly’; the fly in the ointment; the one swallowed by the old woman in the song.





Note from the author
exploring the project

    Gene Zoo
        Puffer Fish
        Also, Zebrafish
        Tyrannosaurus Rex
    Gene Garden
    Earth Poems

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