Biochemical Soul Musings on Nature, Science, Evolution, Biology, and Education


Evolution in Action: Fruit Flies Evolve Low Oxygen Tolerance in the Lab

Summary of alterations in signal transduction pathways.

Summary of alterations in signal transduction pathways.

ResearchBlogging.orgIn a cool new study in PLoS Genetics, through artificial selection researchers have allowed fruit flies (Drosophila) to evolve tolerance to normally lethal low levels of Oxygen.

To many scientists, this type of research will not be seen as that impressive, as a general finding. Artificial selection has been occurring for millennia, and it is the method through which we have created every domesticated animal and crop on the planet. Scientists will however find the specific genetic changes and biological pathway changes involved in this microevolution fascinating indeed. But it serves one more example (among mountains of others) of evolution being witnessed and directed under laboratory conditions.

Personally, I think one of the most amazing aspects of this study was just how quickly these flies evolved to survive and develop perpetually in severely low oxygen conditions. In only 32 generations the flies were able to live in oxygen conditions completely lethal to normal flies.

After they generated the flies, they did whole genome analyses to figure out exactly which DNA sequences and enzymatic pathways had changed in sequence or expression to result in this tolerance, including (not surprisingly) cellular respiration enzymes, citric acid cycle enzymes, and major signaling pathways, such as EGF, Insulin, Notch and Toll/Imd pathways.

Their goal is to eventually apply this information to mammalian systems to understand our own reactions to low oxygen states such as the “reduction in oxygen delivery at high altitude or during certain disease states, such as myocardial infarction and stroke.”

So yes, Sarah Palin, fruit fly research is good for something.

Dan Zhou, Jin Xue, James C. K. Lai, Nicholas J. Schork, Kevin P. White, Gabriel G. Haddad, Eric Rulifson (2008). Mechanisms Underlying Hypoxia Tolerance in Drosophila melanogaster: hairy as a Metabolic Switch PLoS Genetics, 4 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1000221


Sarah Palin knows nothing of science

Fruit Fly Brain

Fruit Fly Brain (credit Pamela Mitchell)

In one of the single most maddening, ignorant, unfathomably idiotic statements (out of many) I have heard spew through Sarah Palin’s lips, the candidate for the second highest position in the free world uttered a single phrase today that could utterly destroy the progress of medicine and scientific understanding.

In her very first policy speech, Palin talked about autism and disabilities (video below). She urged that

“For many parents of children with disabilities, the most valuable thing of all is information. Early identification of a cognitive or other disorder, especially autism, can make a life-changing difference.”

This is very true. And where does this information and the ability for early identification come from? Scientific research. Unfortunately, she went on to say

“You’ve heard about some of these pet projects they really don’t make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.”

When I heard this issue forth from my T.V. I literally could not believe what I had just heard. I had to rewind my TiVo just to make sure. I write now filled with more anger at the the current state of this union than I have felt in some time (albeit, anger cut with a good dose of hope).

Why the anger, you say? What’s wrong with her statement, you ask?

This statement of “public policy” exhibits an almost unbelievable level of the ignorance of Palin and those that support her – and on multiple levels.

Drosophila melanogaster

Drosophila melanogaster

#1. The fruit fly (Drosophila) has probably been the single most important organism for the study of genetics for over a century now. Almost everything we know about genetics, development, cell biology, neuroscience, and every other field of biology has strong roots in previous and current work on Drosophila. The fruit fly is one of a small handful of “standard model organisms” used by thousands of scientists across the world to learn how our bodies, organs, genes, and proteins work. Most of what we know about how a single fertilized cell becomes the amazingly complex beings we are comes from studies initially done in Drosophila. Vast amounts of our understanding of the brain (and brain disorders, diseases, and defects) also come from initial studies in fruit flies.

In fact, recent research from my own graduate alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, on fruit fly brains has had an impact on the understanding of autism and has boosted autism research:

“[S]cientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine have shown that a protein called neurexin is required for..nerve cell connections to form and function correctly. The discovery, made in Drosophila fruit flies may lead to advances in understanding autism spectrum disorders, as recently, human neurexins have been identified as a genetic risk factor for autism.”

To decry research in [condescending and amazed tone] “the fruit fly” is a testament to the true idiocy of this woman and to the failure of our public education system. In fact, her own father, Chuck Heath, was a biology teacher – obviously a complete failure of a biology teacher.

#2. The fact that she threw in “in Paris, France” represents yet another tactic to pander to the “patriotic,” French-hating (remember Freedom Fries?) Right. It also represents another misunderstanding of the nature of science in the modern world. You see, science knows no borders. It doesn’t matter where the research happens. The results all end up in the same place – in our collective database of scientific knowledge.

In my own research, both current and past, my work on heart and brain development has been based on, and done in collaboration with, other scientists all over the world. Some of my current research is based on results from a group in Korea. Other projects were based on studies from a consortium of scientists from Canada to China to Australia.

Regardless of where the research is done, it all contributes to the “public good” and it all feeds into the knowledge of our biological existence, into the state of our medical technology, and into our mental and body health.

I’ve been fuming ever since hearing her comments tonight. I am now happy to say that both Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow are currently covering this story quite well on MSNBC. To quote Richard Wolffe on Olbermann's Countdown, this is one of her most “mindless, ignorant, uninformed, comments” yet.  I hope I don't need to spell out for you why having someone like this in the number 2 (or God forbid, number 1) position in the country will harm science and scientific undertanding in this country.

I imagine the science blogosphere will be alight with posts about this, hopefully from some actual Drosophila scientists, and I will update this post with their links as they come along (let me know if you want your blog post listed).

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Update 2: For those of you who understand that the details of the earmark (which I don't think Palin even had a clue about) actually deals with a different species of fruit fly (Olive Fruit Fly), see the comments section. Yes I am very well aware of this, but it has no bearing on her comment, apparent ignorance, and flippant dismissal of research because it deals with silly-sounding fruit flies. More: PZ Myers at Pharyngula blasts the claim that she "wasn't disparaging all research into fruit flies, but only one specific earmark for studying agricultural pests."

Other coverage of Palin's scientific ignorance:

Excellent post at Reasoning the Reasons: Does She Not Know? Or Does She Not Care to Know?

Think Progress: Memo To Palin: Fruit Fly Research Has Led To Advances In Understanding Autism

Daily Kos: Sarah Does Science

Blue Herald: Olbermann and Wolffe Discuss Palin's Mindlessness

The great PZ at Pharyngula: Sarah Palin: Ignorant and Anti-Science, Losing the Sense of the Argument

My Point Exactly: Science, schmience, part 2

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