IN 2008, US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin famously stuck it to science when she was giving out about “earmark” funding from Congress for basic research: “Sometimes these dollars, they go to projects having little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.”
But despite Ms Palins misgivings, flies can be important lab models.
Like Drosophila melanogaster, a tiny fly that has made a big contribution to our understanding of genetics and how tissues develop – many of the basic processes in flies are also seen in humans.
And if scrutinising insects still sounds like something that should be banished to the farthest corner of campus, how about this: asking the question “why do insects not get sick?” burst open our understanding of the human immune system, an area that has the potential for enormous societal and commercial benefit.
Earlier this month, immunologist and 2011 Nobel Laureate Prof Jules Hoffmann was in Dublin for Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) 2012, and he spoke about making that basic discovery through experiments that involved grasshoppers and flies.
“Insects are remarkably resistant to infections and we wanted to look at mechanisms that account for resistance,” he told a symposium at the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute. “We did not think of any application, it was a blissful time, you had the curiosity and you did your work.”
It eventually led Hoffmann and colleagues to discover a process in the immune system involving proteins called Tolls. That revolutionised our understanding of not only how insects ward off disease but also how the Toll system is involved in human defences.
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