Dan Rattiner's Stories

Something You Didn’t Know About Fruit Flies

So here is what the scientists out at the University of California in San Francisco did. A report on this appeared in the journal Science. And an article about it appeared on the front page of the New York Times on March 15, just in case after reading this, you think I’m making all this up.

The scientists filled two bottles with fruit flies. In one bottle they put female virgin fruit flies eager to mate with male fruit flies to make more fruit flies. In the other, they put individual pregnant fruit flies who, thinking ahead to their new lives, had no further interest in mating with males.

Next to these bottles of fruit flies they put a glass tank. The only thing in this tank was two upside down bottles of liquid with tubes sticking down out of them. If fruit flies were to suck on the ends of the tubes, they could get some of the liquid out of them.

One bottle had yeast and sugar in it, the other bottle had yeast, sugar plus 15% alcohol in it.

Here’s how the experiment worked. Half of a group of frisky male fruit flies were inserted into the bottle with the eager virgin females. The other half of the frisky male fruit flies were inserted into the bottles of pregnant female fruit flies not interested in them. Then the scientists waited four days.

After the four days were up, the scientists took the male fruit flies out of the bottle that contained the virgin female fruit flies. These males, all tuckered out, were inserted into the tank with the two liquid dispensers. These males happily lined up to have a few drinks. They could choose to drink either the sugar water or the spiked sugar water. Then, after awhile, these happy males were taken out of the tank and put I don’t know where.

The next thing the scientists did was go into the bottle where the male fruit flies were still fruitlessly, that is the word for it, chasing around the pregnant females to no good effect. These male fruit flies were also pretty tuckered out by this time, but they were also pretty upset and difficult to round up. The scientists had to work very hard, but after awhile, with great difficulty, they did round them up. They now put them in the now empty tank with the two liquid dispensers.

You already know what happened. The happy fruit flies went for the sugar water. The pissed off fruit flies went big time over to the spiked drink and partook of it until they didn’t care anymore.

That’s it. The story is over. The Times editors liked this story as much as I did and probably for the same reasons. Science marches on. Slowly but surely we are learning more about what goes on in the brains of us creatures, big and small, when the tiny synapses and grey matter spark with little lightning bolts in various places.

But I do think these scientists did not go far enough.

What I really wanted to know was what would pissed off fruit flies do when there’s no alcohol around? I think they will get even more pissed off, get themselves into a rage, then go out and do bad things—burglarize homes, steal cars, write graffiti on the walls and kidnap the children of the rich and hold them for ransom.

The Times quotes Dr. Markus Heilig, the Clinical Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“Reading this study is like looking back in time,” he said, “to see the very origins of the reward circuit that drives fundamental behaviors like sex, eating and sleeping.”

Yes indeed. But it would have been 10 times more interesting if the scientists had followed along after it was all over to watch the boys gone wild.

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