As you may have heard, Sarah Palin had something to say about science in her recent policy speech in Pittsburg. The woman may be all about seal DNA research, but she thinks fruit fly research is absurd. I kid you not! A quote, from her speech promoting investment of federal research dollars towards childhood disabilities like autism:
For many parents of children with disabilities, the most valuable thing of all is information. Early identification of a cognitive or other disorder, especially autism, can make a life-changing difference. […] We’ve got a three trillion dollar budget, and Congress spends some 18 billion dollars a year on earmarks for political pet projects. That’s more than the shortfall to fully fund the IDEA. Where does a lot of that earmark money end up anyway? […] You’ve heard about some of these pet projects they really don’t make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.
So here’s the thing. Fruit fly research is valuable because it contributes to our knowledge of things like… autism. Here’s a list of recent basic science research findings using Drosophila melanogaster, my model organism of choice, that have contributed to understanding autism.
September 2007: Research on Drosophila describes the function of neurexin, a protein encoded by a gene for autism. This gene is currently being developed for autism screening in children. Popular press. Scientific article.
April 2008: Drug screening in Drosophila reveals that some pharmaceuticals have the potential to reverse the effects of fragile X syndrome, a leading cause of autism. Popular press. Scientific article.
October 2008: Research on Drosophila shows that mutations at the gene that causes fragile X syndrome affect the transport of mRNA molecules, and suggests a new mechanism for how the disease works. Scientific article.
In progress: A research group in Belgium (not the same as France, but close!) is investigating a gene thought to cause autism, neurobeachin, using Drosophila. Project announcement.
And I am not a genius. These were the first few hits on Google for “drosophila autism.” Furthermore, a quick Pubmed search for “drosophila autism” generates 114 hits (that’s 114 published scientific papers, Palin) and a search for “drosophila ‘mental retardation'” generates 826 hits. That’s research that has an awful lot to do with the public good.