Fruit Fly Klutzes Give Clues to Human Hearing, Touch
WebMD News Archive
Although some genetic mutations are lethal, the flies died not because they
inherited a fatal defect but because they couldn't figure out where they were
or how to get food, which for normal fruit flies is as easy as falling off a
log. "If you take them and put them in a non-sticky environment such as a
piece of filter paper and you feed them, they'll probably live for a long
time," says Walker in an interview with WebMD.
Fruit flies sense motion by means of ultrasensitive hairs on their bodies.
Even a microscopically small deflection of the hairs will usually cause an
electrical signal to shoot to the insects' brain, telling them "you have
been stimulated, do something!" But in the mutant flies, the loss of or
damage to the gene apparently kept the signals from ever making it to their
The reason all this matters is that the sensory hairs on fruit flies are
strikingly similar in many ways to tiny hair-like cells within the inner ear of
humans that are partly responsible for turning sound, in the form of
vibrations, into an electrical signal that is then sent to the brain, which
then says, "Oh yeah, I heard that."
Although no one has as yet identified a human equivalent for the fruit fly
gene, it has also been found in another darling of genetics laboratories, the
roundworm. The presence of the gene in both flies and worms (which biologically
are two very different kettles of fish) suggests that the gene has played an
important role in evolutionary history and is probably hanging around just
waiting to be discovered in vertebrates -- that is, those of us with backbones,
the authors say.
They speculate that if such a gene can be found, it could be used as the
basis for strategies to prevent or perhaps even reverse some inherited forms of
- Researchers have found a gene in fruit flies that controls how sensations
such as hearing, touch, and body position are related to the brain.
- Fruit flies sense motion via tiny hairs on their bodies and translate that
sensation into electrical signals for the brain, in much the same way that
hair-like cells in the inner ear of humans help convert sound into electrical
signals for the brain.
- No one has yet found a similar gene among vertebrate animals, but
researchers hope that one will be found and further our understanding and
treatment of some types of deafness.