In which some unexpected mettle is revealed

As a mammalian cell biologist adrift in a Drosophila genetics lab, my contact with flies is fairly minimal. Through the thin wall separating my desk from the fly room, I can hear the loud repetitive thumping that accompanies the transfer of one colony of flies to a new vial, punctuating the laughter and music of their human supervisors. About once a week the oxygen depletion alarm goes off from excessive use of the carbon dioxide employed to anesthetize the insects, and the PhD students have to troop out with long-suffering expressions and wait for the oxygen levels to go back to normal. It’s not just noise, either: you can always tell when a new undergraduate helper is maintaining the stocks because runaway flies will suddenly appear everywhere in the lab and office, crawling over keyboard and bench in a bewildered search for the big yeasty blob in which they happily pupariated – or failing that, a ripe banana.

Fruit flies may have a long and illustrious history as a model organism, but they aren’t exactly the heavy-weights of the animal kingdom in terms of robustness. Unlike worms, cell lines and the embryos of higher organisms, you can’t freeze them down. Hence, any new transgenic flies have to be passed once or twice a week in perpetuity: there are strains in our incubators still knocking around from Thomas Hunt Morgan’s time. So our lab’s fly collection is massive: thousands of vials full of mutated insects with extra limbs, warped wings and all shades of phenotype in between, lined up in tray after tray. Needless to say, the task of keeping them going is incredibly tedious and the half-life of any young helper is only a few months.

Also, flies don’t weather travel very well. It’s a sad truth that more than half of the flies sent to us by American colleagues, or by the all-important Bloomington Drosophila Stock Center, arrive DOA. It’s all down to UK Customs: the last Fedex shipment of flies we received was held for four weeks at Heathrow, which is presumably how long it takes a Home Office bureaucrat to work out that a fruit fly highly crippled for life outside the yeasty vial is actually not harmful. But even a few days in the post can spell the death of these frail little creatures.

Which is why I was surprised this morning to find an intact Drosophila corpse inside an Eppendorf tube, itself inside a beaker full of clean Eppendorf tubes that had been sealed and autoclaved. Now that’s what I call a sturdy exoskeleton.


About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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37 Responses to In which some unexpected mettle is revealed

  1. Elizabeth Moritz says:

    First, I had never really thought of the fact that fly work is so “delicate.” Being a microbiologist, I have taken for granted that I can stab, streak, inoculate, dessicate, freeze and thaw my strains without too much worry. The realization that all those unique mutants have to be continually propagated is humbling.
    Second, a former lab mate of mine just started his postdoc in a “fly lab”. I had sent him a text asking how his first week was and he replied “I’m virgin-ing flies.” My imagination went wild with that one unti I saw him a week later and got the less-than-thrilling explanation of the technique. To my disappointment, it did not involve fly-size chastity belts…

  2. Cath Ennis says:

    Heh – this reminds me of trying to do cell culture in a building that used to be a bakery. Yeast everywhere!
    My PhD institute got its first fly group while I was there. The first flies all died, and so did the replacements. It turned out that the lab’s air intake vent was located directly above the sheltered alcove where all the smokers would congregate in winter (but not any more!)

  3. Jennifer Rohn says:

    ‘Harvesting virgins’ is one of those fly lab tasks that sounds hopelessly romantic. When I was in grad school my best friend always had to leave nightclubs at 3 in the morning to go back to the lab to perform this exotic ritual. My own tissue culture always felt mundane by comparison.

  4. Elizabeth Moritz says:

    Oh dear, “harvesting virgins” is even better for those of us with an overactive imagination! I can’t think of anything romantic-sounding for microbiology and biochemistry, only some techniques that sound sort of lewd out of context. Such as “stripping” blots and “streaking’ cultures.

  5. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Introducing DNA?

  6. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Cath, it sounds like they missed out on a classic chance to do some carcinogenesis studies.

  7. Richard P. Grant says:

    You girls need to get out more. Factoid.

  8. Cath Ennis says:

    I can’t believe no-one’s made a “waiter, there’s a fly in my eppendorf” joke yet.

  9. Richard P. Grant says:

    Where is Wilson?

  10. Austin Elliott says:

    Apart from the unfortunate fact of being dead, doesn’t the insect’s achievement make it Superfly?
    PS Careful, Cath. If you say it too loud everyone’ll want one.

  11. Alejandro Correa says:

    (Richard, shhhhtttt, remember to keep the secret).
    I wonder the same thing, where Wilson?

  12. Alejandro Correa says:

    There exist many snakes that are on the prowl and have no pity for the neighbor, Richard, you have to be careful.
    But I insist, must remain silent, Richard.

  13. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I just don’t understand why the fly wasn’t atomized, like a grape in a microwave. Unless it was some sort of commando, SAS-style fly who managed to sneak thought the autoclave-tape perimeter and abseil into the beaker after the fact.

  14. Richard P. Grant says:

    There are plenty of fruit flies at home. Perhaps some experiments with the pressure cooker are called for.

  15. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Maybe it was one mutation too far…

  16. Grant Jacobs says:

    Oh dear. I feel a B-grade sci-fi novel(ette) coming on.
    Mutant indestructible fruit fly takes over globally over-warmed planet.
    (I blame Lisa Tuttle; I’m slowly reading her book on writing sci-fi.)

  17. Jennifer Rohn says:

    It could star a PhD student coming into the fly room late one night, only to find that some of the flies had hooked up one of their comrades to one of those metal helmet things with wires coming out of it. The PhD student could try in vain to explain to the head evil fly that there were easier ways to warp their victim’s brain, just by using handy experimental tools like RNAi – but all would fall on deaf antennae.

  18. Grant Jacobs says:

    You have way to much imagination, Jennifer 🙂
    Seriously, that’s laugh. We could start one of those serial novels…

  19. Grant Jacobs says:

    Let’s see…
    The student seeing a fly making bizarre erratic movements, places it on a open-stage field microscope and peers into the eye-piece.
    Chief scientist of the flies, being deaf as the Ph.D. student earlier observed, gesticulates in FFSL (Fruit Fly Sign Language*) through his mandibles to the student that the wired-up fly is test pilot for a fly cochlear implant that translates human speech.
    (Err, well, I did say it was B-grade!)
    (* BSL = British Sign Language, if the feeble joke is a bridge too far.)
    OK, this is a little weird, even for a Friday night.

  20. Grant Jacobs says:

    Not that flies have cochlears.
    I really must learn the entity code for an asterisk, test: *

  21. Richard P. Grant says:

    Don’t forget that the final scene has to be a shot of the mostly-submerged Statue of Liberty.
    Covered in flies.

  22. Jennifer Rohn says:

    The student then demands to see the head fly’s Home Office animal license to see if he is actually authorized to carry out vivisection. Plus, have all the ethical/cultural concerns about a fly suddenly being able to hear been properly worked out?

  23. Grant Jacobs says:

    The fly adroitly points out that he is not performing vivisection; that would be if he were working on a different species to himself.
    The fly points out, too, that humans didn’t really cover the ethnical issues of suddenly being able to hear again when they developed cochlear implants themselves. So there, he emphasises with a dramatic plunge of his left mandible.

  24. Jennifer Rohn says:

    The student ripostes: “Ok, smarty-pants. Let’s see your Phase I clinical trial license, then.” Pause. “What’s that? Speechless, are you? Better start implanting some vocal cords too.”

  25. Grant Jacobs says:

    Erm, stepping aside from the novelette here, this is not developing a plot, but endless debate of the worst kind! 🙂
    I’m going to volunteer someone else to offer “episodes”. (Seriously, it’s midnight here and I really ought to get to bed!)
    Also on a serious note, there were objections from some deaf people on development of cochlear implants. It’s a long story.

  26. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I do know about the cochlea story – I was playing off that, perhaps not in very good taste. Anyway, there’s a fly exploring my shift key, so i’d better keep the rest of this in lower case.

  27. Alejandro Correa says:

    Hmm, continuing the theme would be interesting to write a book, “The strange disappearance of Mr. Hackett in a laboratory mutations of fruit flies”, there you have a topic Jenny!!

  28. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I’m sure Wilson can take care of himself. He always does. Mind you, no one has heard from him for weeks.

  29. Wilson Hackett says:

    Dear Jennifer
    Thank you for your concern. I haven’t logged into Nature Network for a long time, because the weather has been so good for sailing I have had little time for anything else.
    But something strange is going on. I have had to sign in several times to write a comment. Does this happen to everybody?

  30. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Yes. It’s the MT4 Event Horizon. You’ll get used to it in a few months.

  31. Alejandro Correa says:

    End of subject. Interesting is the fruit fly above the giant chromosomes of larvae.

  32. Alejandro Correa says:

    Ah!, Hi Wilson, I see you are well, greetings!

  33. Wilson Hackett says:

    Ah. I seem to remember everybody waiting for MT4 because it would fix everything. Is this MT4?
    Greetings Alejandro! It is nice to see you. But I have to go now and repair a hole in my dinghy. I was training a colleague and we had what I think you might call an argument with a submerged spur. He is very upset about it but I said it was all right, these things happen.

  34. Alejandro Correa says:

    Hope it is not a black hole, Wilson.

  35. Jennifer Rohn says:

    What does this have to do with Drosophila?

  36. M W says:

    Having worked in a fly lab, yeah the bodies survive just fine after going through the autoclave.
    One of my coworkers went to work in industry and the place where they worked actually had a machine/robot that would do flipping of the vials for stock maintenance.
    I know work with another kind of insect, one of the bloodsucking kinds, and in comparision, Drosophila are really easy to maintain compared with other types of insects.

  37. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Don’t think my boss would be too impressed with a robotic fly flipper. We rely on the students to keep track of the health of the stocks and to intervene in a timely fashion if there is mold or if the flies otherwise need a little extra attention. I can’t see a machine being able to work this out.

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