The fruits of their labor

Searching for answers from fruit flies

Evan Dalaker, an undergraduate student, right, and Lani Keller, assistant professor of biology, work on a summer research project using both genetics and pharmacology to suppress a degenerative neuromuscular disease in fruit fly larva.

T

hey're annoying. They're tiny. And they're everywhere. If you've ever left a bunch of bananas on the kitchen countertop a little too long, chances are you've encountered Drosophila melanogaster.

But you may want to think twice before you swat away the next fruit fly you see. When it comes to the science lab, it turns out these small pests play a big role in biological research.

Evan Dalaker and Nick Girard, both students in the biology program, have spent part of a summer researching muscular and neurodegeneration in fruit flies in the hopes that their findings could eventually be applied by researchers to combat diseases such as ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease).

"The fruit fly is a very simple animal model for very complex human diseases," said Lani Keller, assistant professor of biology.  

Over the course of eight weeks, the students worked with Keller and studied the fruit flies after genetically modifying them with an ankyrin mutation that induces neurodegeneration and muscle atrophy. They took images of the flies through techniques such as laser scanning confocal microsopy and quantified and analyzed all of the resulting data.

"Basically they dissected the flies and measured their muscles," said Keller with a smile.

According to Keller, the students found they could suppress muscle atrophy in the fruit flies by knocking down the molecule NF-kB, both genetically and pharmacologically, with the drug pyrrolidine dithiocarbamate (PDTC). Though the findings are just one small part of a complex puzzle, they do have biomedical relevance.

"Most people with motor neuron diseases such as ALS end up dying not because their legs or their arms can't move, but because their diaphragm isn't working anymore," said Keller. "So if we can somehow suppress this muscle phenotype, it might really help with neurodegenerative diseases."

The research project is part of the university's Interdisciplinary Program for Research and Scholarship, where students work side-by-side with a faculty mentor during the summer and receive up to $5,000 in support of their collaborative efforts.

"I really like the unknown about research--trying to answer a question that nobody has quite answered yet," said Dalaker. "Even today Dr. Keller told me that what we're doing is great, but she wants us to sit down and think about the next step. We have these findings but it's the 'now what?' question that I would really like to try to understand and answer."

According to Keller, the students will have ample time to expand on their summer research. She hopes to work with them throughout the next three school years, and publish and present their findings at a national conference.

"In class we're sitting there and learning about what other people have already done," said Girard. "Whereas in lab, it's cool because we're actually finding things. It's that unknown aspect, where I'm maybe one of the first people to even know about this. I'm wondering, 'where is this going to take me and where is it going to end up.'"