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Studying Drosophila

Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly.You've learned about the goals of NASA's life sciences researchers: they want to learn how to keep astronauts safe on their journey to distant places. One method they use is to send a model animal specimen into space and observe what happens to it. Biological systems are similar across many species. Studying one animal can lead to deeper understandings of other animals, even humans. Some animals are easier to study than others; small animals with short life cycles make it easy to study genetic changes. We already have a good understanding of life and human diseases because of scientists' work with model specimen; studying them will continue to enhance our understanding of life.

Why Drosophila?

Believe it or not, fruit flies have many things in common with humans! Fruit flies and humans share many human disease genes, cellular processes, brain cell development, and behaviors. For example, fruit flies that are deprived of sleep have reduced ability to learn. Fruit flies also can sense the direction of gravity.

Fruit flies reproduce quickly, in about two weeks, so scientists can observe genetic changes in the offspring of several generations in a short amount of time.

Since fruit flies are so small, a large number of them can be sent up in the space shuttle in a small volume. Hundreds of flies can live in containers the size of your hand! Having a large population to study reduces the statistical variation and makes research more accurate. In statistics, the larger the sample size, the better. For example, if you were trying to determine the average shoe size of American sixth graders, would you get better results from asking five sixth graders their shoe size, or 1,000 students? Asking 1,000 students would give you a more accurate picture of the average American sixth graders' shoe size because you have a larger sample.

In summary, fruit flies can help us explore the development of the nervous system, immune systems, and the genetic changes due to the microgravity of space travel.

Next you'll explore some parts of fruit flies that are different from humans!

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 FirstGov  NASA
Editor: Carol Elland
NASA Official: B J Navarro
Last Updated: September 2006
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