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Fruit Fly Klutzes Give Clues to Human Hearing, Touch

WebMD Health News

March 23, 2000 (Boston) -- They would probably make lousy dance partners, but a bunch of fruit flies so uncoordinated that they cannot even get food into their mouths is providing scientists with evidence of a gene that controls how sensations such as hearing, touch, and body position are conveyed to the brain. The research is reported in the March 24 issue of the journal Science.

And although it's a long conceptual leap from fruit fly to human, the findings may help medical researchers understand and perhaps treat or prevent certain inherited forms of deafness, suggest Richard G. Walker, PhD, and colleagues from the University of California, San Diego.

Fruit flies are the workhorses of genetic laboratories, because all of the genes that make the pesky little creatures what they are have been identified and catalogued. Many of the genes, in fact, are similar to those found in higher animals, including humans. Also, because fruit flies are born, grow up, breed, and die within two months, scientists can study how changes in specific genes in one generation of flies can affect their posterity for many generations to come.

But what do flies with two -- make that six -- left feet have to do with the realm of the senses? The answer has to do with the mechanisms that allow cells in the body to respond to a physical or mechanical stimulus such as a touch or a sound wave.

"Biologists have a pretty good idea of how chemicals work to signal cells [with] odors, tastes -- things like that, and we have a very good idea about the molecules involved in [responding] to light. We are virtually clueless as to how mechanical stimuli are translated into signals in cells," says Martin Chalfie, PhD, professor of biology at Columbia University in New York, who reviewed the study for WebMD. "Mechanical information is utilized by touch, hearing, balance, stretch, position, blood pressure, [and is even] important in regulating the amount of bone that you have."

To see whether they could find a gene that controlled how sensing cells send information to the brain, Walker and colleagues narrowed in on three strains of flies that couldn't find their way out of a lab dish, let alone out of a paper bag. The flies all had mutations in a specific gene that caused them to be so uncoordinated that their first act as full-fledged adult flies was to fall into their sticky food and die.

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