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Discovering Molecules that Influence Behavior

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, February 6, 2014

We humans have more in common with fruit flies than we might realize, and that's why research on these tiny insects can yield valuable clues about human genetics, illnesses and a wide range of social interactions. Researchers have even found that jilted male fruit flies turn to drink.


Scientists at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) discovered that when male fruit flies are rejected by female fruit flies they are driven to excessive alcohol consumption and will drink far more than their sexually satisfied peers. They also discovered that a tiny molecule in the fly's brain, called neuropeptide F, governs this behavior. Neuropeptides are a highly diverse class of signal molecules in the brain. The UCSF experiments showed that rejected male lies, whose brain levels of neuropeptide F were lowered, sought alternative rewards by drinking to intoxication when given access to alcoholic and non-alcoholic liquids. Successfully mated male flies, who had higher levels of neuropepetide F in their brains, were less likely to choose the intoxicant.

Ulrike Heberlein, who led the UCSF research and who is now scientific program director at the Janelia Farm research campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute has noted the research found a connection between the flies and mammals for a social behavior influenced by brain chemistry. It turns out that a similar human molecule, neuropeptide Y, may also be associated with social triggers that drive people to abuse alcohol and drugs.

Now scientists studying fruit flies are learning more about the brain activity that underlies male aggression. A New York Times story by James Gorman describes research by David J. Anderson, a California Institute of Technology neuroscientist who is running what the story calls a fruit fly fight club. He and colleague are studying the role of the neuropeptide tachykinin in male aggression. When neurons that produce tachykinin are silenced, researchers were able to decrease aggression in the files. The emergence of tachykinin is very interesting, the story says, because mammals have several different kinds of tachykinin, some of which have been associated with aggression in rodents and may have a variety of roles in human brain function. While the implications for humans is unclear, Dr. Anderson told The Times that "studying aggression in fruit flies can actually teach us something about some of the molecules that control aggression."

Researchers have known for some time that humans and Drosophila fruit flies have many of the same genes and use them in the same way. Many known human diseases have recognizable matches in the genetic code of the fruit fly. A University of Glasgow scientist studying kidney stones produced kidney stones in fruit flies-and noted that unlike humans, the flies didn't seem pained by them. Other researchers have noted that genes and pathways that regulate fruit fly life spans seem closely parallel to the genes that underlie human longevity.

The poet William Blake had all life, even tiny insects, in mind when he wrote "The Fly" in his Songs of Experience, His poem, in part, "Am I not/A fly like thee?/ Or art not thou/ A man like me?/For I dance,/ And drink, and sing,/ Till some blind hand/ Shall brush my wing."

Read The New York Times story here. A UCSF news story explains how scientists discovered the link between fruit fly sex, their altered brain chemistry, and links to a propensity for inebriation.

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Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  nature  research 

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