Edinburgh, Fife & East Scotland

Edinburgh scientists give an insight into fruit fly potential

Image caption Scientists believe the fruit fly could hold the key to further advances in branches of medical science

Most of us think of them as simply a nuisance - but for some cutting-edge scientists, fruit flies are nothing short of potential lifesavers.

Edinburgh University is considered one of the world's leading research centres on fruit flies, or drosophila as they are more formally known.

Researchers there have been offering an insight into how the insect is playing a big part in medical science.

Dr Mar Carmena is based at the School of Biological Sciences and has been studying fruit flies for the past 25 years.

Her team are currently testing new chemotherapy drugs studying their effect in a whole organism.

She also uses flies to test the effect of anti-cancer drugs on the cell divisions that produce eggs and sperm.

'Horrible pests'

Dr Carmena has strong views on how we should treat the humble fruit fly.

She said: "The next time you see one of these horrible little pests hovering about your fruit bowl, think twice and think that there might be scientists like me in labs in Scotland - closer to you than you think - that are using fruit flies that can be of fundamental medical relevance in the future."

Drosophila have been used in scientific research for more than 100 years, offering crucial insights into fields such as the genetics of ageing, diabetes and cancer.

Another researcher at the university, Prof Richard Ribchester, is using the flies for initial research into motor neurone disease.

He is trying to find out why it affects more men than women.

'Precise' experiments

He explained: "We have an organism which breeds very rapidly.

"It enables us to design and execute experiments which are very precise and to answer questions about what molecules are going wrong at particular stages in the disease."

Fruit flies share many features with human beings.

For example, Prof Andrew Jarman breeds flies with defects for research into hearing and balance.

"Of the human genes that have so far been associated with human diseases, about 75% of those have an ancient counterpart in drosophila," he said.

"You can find out a lot about what those genes are doing at a fundamental level and just what happens when they go wrong, just by studying drosophila - and a lot of that will be directly applicable to understanding humans."

He added: "We have a lot to thank the fruit fly for - so the next time you go to squash one of those pesky little creatures, think about it before you reach for the newspaper."

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