Academic journal article Genetics

Fruit Flies in Biomedical Research

Academic journal article Genetics

Fruit Flies in Biomedical Research

Article excerpt

ONE of the most current and common discussion topics among biologists is the decline in federal support for research. As shown in Figure 1A, the total number of R01 funded projects, the gold standard for science support in the United States via the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has declined by more than 17% in the past 5 years. This decline in number of R01s is also reflected in a similar decline in total invested dollars. The reduction in the number of R01 grants to support Drosophila research is even greater than the average and hovers at ^25% for the past 5 years (Figure 1, A and B). Finally, the total support in dollars for each Drosophila R01 has remained steady or declined, unlike the average R01 grant (Figure 1, C and D). Hence, the gap in dollar support between the average NIH R01 and the average R01 in the Drosophila field is now nearing 15%. In summary, we estimate that our model organism has lost more than 30% of its support from NIH in the past 5 years vs. a ^15% decline in total support for all fields combined. One could argue that this loss of support at NIH is partially compensated by additional support from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Unfortunately, support for Drosophila research based on available data from NSF has decreased similarly (Figure 1, E and F). Although other funding mechanisms may partially compensate for these losses of support, they can at best be considered marginal.

This reduced support is especially surprising as fly biologists have contributed in so many different ways to our understanding of key biological phenomena and have greatly advanced our knowledge of mammalian biology (Rubin and Lewis 2000; Bier 2005; Bellen et al. 2010). On the positive side, these contributions have not gone unnoticed at the major US philanthropy for science, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). HHMI has steadily supported investigators in the fly field for the past 30 years and this support has been unabated. It was even expanded in the past 10 years by selecting Drosophila as a model organism to unravel neural networks at the recently developed Janelia Research Campus. We believe that Drosophila research has indeed numerous assets, and we will argue in this perspective that the flyhas a tremendous amount of knowledge and new discoveries to offer that will directly as well as indirectly benefithumanity. We will especially focus on the opportunities afforded by new molecular and sequencing technology and better access to human data. Drosophila provides many opportunities to solve numerous medically relevant problems and should continue to be supported much more broadly to continue to pioneer fundamental discoveries.

Past Contributions of Drosophila Research to Biomedical Research

Although it may seem moot to emphasize the past contributions of fly geneticists, developmental biologists, and neuroscientists, it is worthwhile to very briefly reiterate some of the most important contributions that originated in Drosophila research and their impact on the biomedical community. We refer the readers to several review articles that describe additional examples (Rubin and Lewis 2000; Bier 2005; Spradling et al. 2006; Arias 2008; Bellen et al. 2010).

Genetics and epigenetics

It is difficult to overstate the contribution of discoveries grounded in Drosophila genetics in the first part of the 20th century initiated by Thomas Hunt Morgan and his trainees. Morgan, Sturtevant, Bridges, and Müller established the chromosomal basis of inheritance (Morgan 1915; Sturtevant et al. 1919). In classical studies, Müller showed that X-rays were mutagenic (Müller 1928) and Sturtevant demonstrated linkage (Sturtevant 1917) and showed how unequal crossovers led to duplications and deletions (Sturtevant and Morgan 1923; Sturtevant 1925), a mechanism that underlies numerous human genetic disorders (Stankiewicz and Lupski 2006). Furthermore, both also contributed to the discovery of genes that affect position-effect variegation (Sturtevant 1925; Müller 1930), which turned out to be key conserved players in chromatin modification and epigeneticgeneregulation (Kleinjan and van Heyningen 2005). …

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