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Fruit Fly Klutzes Give Clues to Human Hearing, Touch


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 minuscule noggins.

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 deafness.

Vital Information:

  • 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.
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