Way back in October, politics were stressful and Sarah Palin (and others) were confused about fruit fly research. But now, even politicians should understand that there is no conflict of interest between basic science research on fruit flies and saving the children: in a special issue of the journal Fly, a new review paper describes the utility of Drosophila in studying the biology of intellectual disabilities.
Many forms of mental retardation have genetic determinants, and science research into the biological basis of these disabilities is an obvious avenue to improving lives. As the paper by François Bolduc and Tim Tully describes, Drosophila is a valuable animal model for investigating the genetic basis of intellectual disabilities. About 87% of the genes identified in humans to cause mental retardation have orthologs in Drosophila.
It turns out that Drosophila is an especially good model for studying mental retardation. Genes for learning and memory are more well-conserved between humans and flies than other classes of genes, and flies are well-developed as a model system for conditioning and memory assays. Because they are small and breed quickly, flies are also a useful resource for testing pharmaceutical treatment. This paper describes a number of mental disabilities that are caused by mutation at single genes, and the insights gained by evaluating the Drosophila orthologs. And as more genetic determinants are identified, research on model systems like fruit flies will reveal valuable information on how these genes are expressed and whether medical interventions are safe and effective.