Posts Tagged drosophila

Sunday Spinelessness – The end of Drosophila melanogaster? David Winter Apr 25

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It looks like Drosophila melanogaster, the subject of a recent Sunday Spinelessness post, is about to be lost the world. The species itself isn’t under threat of extinction, you can still have them delivered to your door, it’s the name that looks set to go the way of the Brontosaurus.

One of the goals of taxonomy is to give scientists a precise set of terms that refer to a mutually understood group of organisms. The name D. melanogaster is a case in point, geneticists frequently refer to that species as “the fruit fly” but the common name “fruit fly” could equally be applied to the whole genus Drosophila (more than 1400 species), the family Drosophilidae (containing another 50 or so genera) or the related family Tephritidae. Believe it or not, the lack of precision conveyed by the term fruit fly became part of the USA’s 2008 presidential election. Sarah Palin made some snide and ignorant remarks about “fruit fly research” in one of her speeches which were interpreted by scientific types all over the world as a swipe at basic research. People wrote pieces on the importance of D. melanogaster research in understanding human disease and media picked up the story. But Palin wasn’t talking about Drosophila, she was referring to a project on an economically important Tephritid. She was still being ignorant and playing the “aren’t those scientists stupid” card, be she was doing it about a project that stood to help a multi-million dollar industry that employs thousands of people.

Combined phylogenetic tree (“supertree”) stolen from Michael Bok, who redrew it from van der Linde and Houle (2008)

When we say D. melanogaster instead of fruit fly we all know what we’re talking about, and in modern biology a species name can be a key to huge amounts of information. But there’s a problem with Drosophila. The genus as it is currently prescribed is a mess, species currently included in the genus come out in disparate groups in phylogenetic analyses like the one one the left. The solution is obvious, break up the big malformed genus into a set of smaller ones, giving all but one a new name. Such a process is pretty common in taxonomy, and the code used to my animal taxonomists explains how to go about doing it. Each genus has a “type species” which acts as the name bearer and when a genus is split, it’s the group with the type species that keeps the original name. In molecular biology D. melanogaster is very much the name bearing Drosophila (it’s frequently referred to just by that name or even as “the fly”) but the same isn’t true in taxonomy. The type species is D. funebris and no matter how Drosophila is broken up D. funebris and D. melanogaster are going to end up in different genera so melanogaster will lose its forename. But D. melongaster isn’t just any fly – changing that name would render thousands of textbooks, papers and databases out of date.

Kim van der Linde saw the coming of the Drospho-pocalypse, and applied to the International Committee of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) to have D. melanogaster installed as the type species, preventing any changes to the taxonomy of the group from changing the species name. A couple of weeks ago the ICZN made their decision: the application was turned down and D. melanogaster will almost certainly have it’s name changed. You can read the decision online – the committee make arguments for their decision with varying degrees of credibility. Perhaps the weakest justification revolves around this mosquito (I couldn’t have two Sunday Spinelessness posts in a row without one photo from me!):

Aedes aegypti  Stegomyia aegypti ?

This photo was taken on Mitiaro in the Cook Islands, and at the time I took I knew for sure that those white striped legs marked it out as Aedes aegypti. If that species of mosquito had bitten me on any other island in the Cooks I wouldn’t have calmly framed a photo, it’s a vector for dengue fever which is, by all accounts, a horrible disease to have (Mitiaro’s population of 200 people isn’t enough to sustain Dengue, and since the main features of the island are two huge brackish lakes fill of mosquito larvae you soon give up on swatting bugs and spraying DEET). But the point of me showing you this photo now is to tell you that mosquito is no longer Aedes aegypti. Some ICZN committee members cited the fact this species has recently been renamed to Stegomyia aegypti as evidence that renaming a widely studied organism isn’t the end of the world, which rather ignores that fact medical workers, ecologists, parasitologists and geneticists have ignored the reassignment entirely and some prominent journals have even issued editorials encouraging researchers to use the “old” name.

Surely in Aedes aegypti we have a model of what will happen when D. melnoagster gets its genus reassignment – taxonomists will refer to it by the new name and the rest of the world will cray on as if nothing had happened. By refusing to make a small change to the existing taxonomy of the group the ICZN runs the risk of driving a gap between the taxonomic community and other scientists. The only good thing to come from the whole ordeal is that “D. melanogaster” will almost certainly become Sophophora melanogaster which tranlates as “dark bodied bearer of knowledge”, a fitting name for such an important fly.

Plenty of other bloggers have been talking about this story, some with quite different takes than mine. You should check out Kim van der Linde who made the the application to the ICZN and has been blogging the aftermarth as well as Micheal at Arthropoda, Chris at Catalogue of Organisms and Dave at Seed.

The tree is from the following paper:

Kim Van der Linde, & David Houle (2008). A supertree analysis and literature review of the genus Drosophila and closely related genera (Diptera, Drosophilidae)Insect Syst. Evol., 39, 241-267

Sunday Spinelessness – A Nobel Prize Winning Insect David Winter Apr 04


I think invertebrates are important. The 95% of animal species that don’t have a backbone are not simply the base of the animal kingdom’s pyramid, they are the little creatures that run the world. A third of the planet’s food production relies on honey bees, collembola and corpse-feeding insects turn dead tissue into living tissue and coral reefs can turn the nutrient-poor tropical seas into submarine rainforests. There are even a couple of invertebrate animals that have won the Nobel Prize.


Drosophila melanogaster has probably taught us more about genetics than any other animal on earth. In the wild D. melanogaster larvae develop on rotting fruit so, just like the flesh-flies that were featured here a couple of weeks ago, they are faced with the problem of having to complete their entire developmental program in the short period of time the fruit they are born in is a viable food source. Thanks to these environmental constraints, D. melanogaster has a very short life cycle. Under optimal conditions they can go from egg to adult in a week. This remarkable developmental haste means drosophilists can run genetic experiments that cover many generations in a few months, and they can run many replicates of these experiments because each of them takes up about this much space:


Drosophila has been kept in laboratories since the the turn of the 20th Century but T.H. Morgan was the first person to put Drosophila at the forefront of genetic research. Morgan was an embryologist by training and, like a lot of embryologists then and now, he became interested in a school of evolutionary thought called mutationism. As the name suggests, the mutationists argued that one-off mutations were the creative engine of evolution, relegating natural selection to weeding out maladaptive mutants. In order to test the creative power of mutation Morgan grew up generation after generation of Drosophila and bombarded them with anything he thought might mutate them; radium, salts, sugars, acids, bases and even centrifugal force. Two years of this mutational bombardment got Morgan nowhere, he could induce changes in his flies but none that would be stably passed on. In 1910 he found a single white eyed male.

There is a story, which I can’t find repeated by reliable sources, that holds that Morgan took the first white eyed male home with him in jar and slept with the jar next to his bed that night. I don’t know if that story is true but that one fly does have a treasured place in the history of genetics. By crossing it to normal eyed (what geneticists call “wild type”) females he was able to show that the genetic factor that made the fly’s eyes white was part of the sex determining chromosome. For the first time a gene had been shown to be reside on a chromosome. A few years later he showed that multiple genes are arranged in linear fashion along chromosomes by demonstrating crossing over between the white eye gene and another called rudimentary. At Otago second year geneticists repeat Morgan’s experiments, so this picture, sorting flies under a binocular microscope, will be familiar to anyone whose been through the program. (it will probably also bring back memories of escaped flies and a whiff of the (dilute) ether used to knock the files out…)


Morgan was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1933, in 1948 Drosophila research got another Nobel, this time to Hermam Muller for showing X-ray radiation could induce mutations. Geneticists have continued to use Drosophila as a model organism, perhaps most usefully in untangling the genetic interactions that underly the development process. In 1980 Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard and Eric Wieschaus presented the results of a mutational screen; that is, they mutated Drosophila stocks at random and recorded the developmental phenotypes that resulted. Nüsslein-Volhard and Wieschaus identified 15 genes involved with the very early stages of development. In quick time Drosophilists mapped that those genes to chromosomes and worked out how their products combined to pattern a developing embryo. Nüsslein-Volhard and Wieschaus’ work laid the ground work for one of the most staggering findings of modern biology, almost all the genes that help shape the Drosophila embryo have counterparts in the human genome that play similar roles in our development. An insect can be a useful model for human development and disease genetics. Nüsslein-Volhard and Wieschaus were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1995, the third Nobel for work on Drosophila.

A big thanks to Sarah Morgan, one of Otago’s fly pushers, for the photos that illustrate this post. Sarah’s off to the US of A this week to show off her research at The Big Drosophila Meeting in Washington DC so she will probably have some less historical Drosophila science to talk about in the next little while…

Nüsslein-Volhard C, & Wieschaus E. (1980) Mutations affecting segment number and polarity in Drosophila. Nature, 287(5785), 795-801. PMID: 6776413

Rubin GM, & Lewis EB. (2000) A brief history of Drosophila’s contributions to genome research. Science, 287(5461), 2216-8. PMID: 10731135

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