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Lord of the Fruit Flies

Lord of the Fruit Flies

For Esther Betrán, fruit flies aren’t a household annoyance—they’re a gateway into understanding how human genes function. The biology associate professor received a National Institutes of Health grant worth nearly $670,000 to investigate the genomic structure of the tiny insects.

Why study a fruit fly’s DNA?

We believe that the genome architecture of many species may evolve in a similar way. We’re looking specifically at the genomic structure of male fruit flies in hopes that we can find clues about the way our own reproductive functions evolve.

How would a fly’s genes be able to tell you that?

Gene duplications that occur in the germ line are believed to be a significant driver in evolution, as germ line cells contain genetic material that is passed on to the next generation. Our hypothesis is that in the fruit flies’ testes, gene duplications are rapidly changing the function and characteristics of the testes tissue but leaving the genes that contribute to the characteristics of other tissues unchanged.

Why is that significant?

If it’s true, it may tell us about how male fertility is built and how it keeps changing at a fast pace. It could also give us more information on how differences between species develop. With previous research, we’ve proven that the new functions displayed in the testes tissue are not the same as those seen by the parent gene that they came from. We now think that in some cases this new function may be only good for sperm tissue, and we want to study that.

That could have pretty serious ramifications, right?

Absolutely. Our model could bring about a paradigm shift in how scientists believe that “sexually antagonistic conflicts,” which is when a gene’s expression is good for one sex but not for another, are resolved in the genome.