Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly, is an incredible genetic model system that has enabled scientists to probe deeply into a diverse array of fields relevant to human health. For instance, using flies as my model system, I've conducted studies relating to human stem cell biology, genetics, developmental biology, neuroscience, cancer, autism and schizophrenia.
This humble creature has been used as a 'model organism' for the study of cell biology and genetics for well over 100 years. It is one of most extensively used and well understood of all model systems! Model organisms are species that are studied to understand the biology of other organisms, often humans. They are used because they have much simpler systems which are easier to study and manipulate, but they still replicate aspects of biology in more complex systems, even those of humans.
How are fruit flies like humans? Fruit flies share 75% of the genes that cause disease with humans, so scientists can learn about human genetics by studying fruit fly genetics. It is not only the flies themselves that scientists are interested in, but understanding the basic biology that all organisms have in common.
There are hundreds of labs in North America alone that are entirely dedicated to studying fruit flies. They are cheap and easy to cultivate, quick to reproduce, have a short life span and are transparent at many stages in their development (making imaging easier). They're also used because:
The relationship between fruit fly and human genes is so close that often the sequences of newly discovered human genes, including disease genes, can be matched with equivalent genes in the fly.
It is relatively straightforward to mutate (disrupt or alter) fruit fly genes.
The genetic 'toolkit' in the fly is second to none: it provides a simple means of creating 'transgenic' animals that express specific genes and proteins, such as the green fluorescent protein of jellyfish. A stunning array of molecular techniques are available in flies to change how and when they are expressed and to recapitulate disease states so that we study how to correct them.
Drosophila is being used as a genetic model for many study mechanisms underlying such diverse areas as aging and oxidative stress, immunity, diabetes, and cancer, as well as drug abuse, and is a model for neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson's, Huntington's, spinocerebellar ataxia and Alzheimer's disease, among others.