Our Cousins, The Fruit Flies
A few weeks ago I wrote about showing up at the Pearly Gates and God asking you what you did with your talents and you drawing a blank. Then I got an email from a 48-year old lady, âa mother of four and a wife to one manâ she wrote (just incase there was a chance she could be a wife to two men) who said she once loved writing but she sort of walked away from it. Now she wants to revive it and could I read this piece on fruit flies?
Wait, fruit flies?!
What does she do from 8-5? Sheâs a compliance professional, specializing in Export Control Compliance, U.S. Laws and Regulations that regulates and restricts access of certain US technologies by foreigners. âIn short,â she wrote, âI keep people out of jail.â
She works for Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. Once upon a time she worked in Kenya for International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). I canât even start following her career path.
There are people who are passionate about cars, then there are people who are passionate about fruit flies. To each his own. Iâm running this piece because of a few reasons:
- Itâs about bloody fruit flies for chrissake, even fruit flies have the right to be heard.
- Â Sheâs 48-years old (the oldest person we have hosted here as a guest writer) and is brave enough to pursue her passion and agree to be hosted here.
- Sheâs a wife to one man. Surely, that should be congratulated.
- Sheâs an invested writer with a racy cheek buried in the initial artistic self-doubt. (She also sent me articles about her bossâs cat called Ghost and about how she feels very old because now her eyesight is failing and she has to read messages by holding her phone a meter away). Â
Gang, meet Rose Ndegwa. Rose, talk directly into that blue microphone.
And on a side note: Happy birthday to Cliff The Tall, an ardent reader and commenter here. Enjoy the third floor, boss. Just get a new profile picture while at it.
(Yvonne, the editor here asked me, âKwani how tall is this Cliff?â Cliff, answer the lady.)
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It is said that some of the best creative ideas happen in the shower. It has something to do with the rain-like rhythm of water and the shower jet streams hitting against the skin, igniting the neurons in the right brain. That is why people who croak suddenly find their voice in the shower. I like the shower, but by far my favourite room is the toilet. I realize that might sound a little gross to some, but it is my ultimate Zen room. I have no idea if biological functions that take place in the toilet cause the brain to produce dopamine in the same way that a shower does. The term âpoo-phoriaâ has been used to describe the feeling of relaxation that accompanies bio-breaks, but that is not what it is for me. I simply love the privacy that the 4 x4 ft cubical provides. My wackiest ideas happen in the toilet. I have read countless books- cover to cover- in the toilet, not in one sitting, of course. I have taken power naps in the toilet. I have prayed in the toilet and have retreated there to de-stress.
I am not a big fan of the toilets that are open at the bottom so that you can see the occupantâs feet from outside or an adjacent cubicle. I do not know what purpose is served by that gap at the bottom, other than being able to easily retrieve a person who, for whatever reason, passes out in the toilet. I just do not like next-door occupant looking at my toes or my shoes. Â
âWhat in the world did you have for dinner, Ms. Pink Wedges?â
My Zen toilet at Chiromo was on this long hallway on third floor of the Botany building. It was a lonely toilet, hardly ever visited by anyone else. The perfect hideaway. Â I revised for several exams and CATS in that toilet. And it was in that toilet that I decided I did not want to pursue science, because I did not have the tenacity or patience required to be a scientist. It all started with an experiment on fruit flies. Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
As a first-year zoology student at Chiromo, I was studying the basics of Mendelian laws of genetics, by experimenting with the fruit fly, a.k.a. Drosophila melanogaster (Ndomba or GathugumĂŽri in Kikuyu, and for all you Magufuli people, Â Nzi ya Tunda âŚ I think!). The fruit fly is that little fly hovering over fruit in your kitchen. It is a perfect model for study of many biological processes including genetics because of its varying genetic traits that are expressed as easily distinguishable physical features or phenotypes. It is also easy to tell male from female. Â The gist of the experiment was you had fruit fly eggs in a bottle which contained a culture medium. Once the eggs hatched and adults emerged, you had to separate the boys from the girls, select specific phenotypes, and allow them to mate and lay eggs. The experiment is repeated a number of times, each time selecting certain predetermined characteristics easy-peasy.
The experiment was going well. I fantasized about becoming a geneticist someday, spending the rest of my entire life looking at flies under a microscope, admiring the colour of their eyes, the length of their wings, number of segments on the tummies, selecting and mating them, just like Gregor Mendel and his peas (remember him, the guy who spent his life looking at pod shapes and color of peas?). But, as Murphyâs law would have it, the last day of the pupa stage for my flies fell on a Friday, which meant that there was a good chance that adult flies would emerge on Friday night. Female fruit flies become receptive to courting males eight hours after emergence. It is not underage sex; they are actually mature for a creature whose lifespan is 40-120 days.
There was a must-go-to Friday party. Should I take the culture bottle to the party and take internment breaks from the party to see if the flies had emerged? If they did, I could possibly, separate the boys and set them free to join the party. Fruit flies love empty soda and beer bottles, so I was certain that they would feel at home. Or should I skip the party altogether? That is what a student aspiring to be a career scientist ought to do, right? But this was first-year, and generally speaking, parties ranked higher in importance than class projects. Â May be there is such a thing as post-term Drosophila babies, like women who carry pregnancies well into the 44th week? I crossed fingers and prayed that the flies would hold on and wait until I got back. They probably did- I will never know â because I did not get back to my room until Saturday afternoon and by then, it was too late even for post-term babies. The adult flies were well on their way to becoming grandparents. There was no way to salvage the experiment. Â Â
Turns out that I should have had more respect for this fly. Drosophila is one of most extensively used and studied model organism. Model organisms are important because by understanding how certain biological processes progress in the model organism, we can gain insight into how similar processes progress in human beings. There are other model organisms, such as the rat, but for certain processes, the fruit fly is preferred. It is easy to culture and cheap to maintain, multiplies in large numbers, and has a short lifespan. From an ethical viewpoint too, no one would find it objectionable that gazillions of flies are raised for research purposes and washed down the drain when the research done (But seriously, where are the animal rights people? Doesnât the life of this fly matter?)
If you are wondering what you have in common with the fruit fly, apart from love of fruit, how about this: the gene sequences in the fruit fly so closely resembles human genes, that human genes can be matched to equivalent genes in the fly. In fact, 75% of human disease-causing genes are believed to have a functional equivalent gene in the fly. So in addition to genetics, the fruit fly is making contributions into the understanding progression, of diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinsonâs, are being studied using the fruit fly.
By the way, that kikuyu name for the fruit fly gathugumĂŽri, literally translates to âthat ka-thing that pees on somethingâ, usually the eye. If you ever have a fruit fly in your eye, you will remember. It will live up to its name and it burns like crazy. I wonder though, what causes it to take a leak in the eye. I mean, does it intentionally look for an eye the way we look for a toilet when we really have to go? Or is it revenge taken on behalf of gazillions of fruit flies that we have sacrificed in research? Â Perhaps fruit flies are just downright lazy, like people who get into a swimming pool, only to realize they needed to use the bathroom, but being too lazy, they go, right there in the swimming pool. Â If you are thinking what kind of crazy people do that, think again. Look at the people around you next time you happen by a swimming pool. You would not lose if you had to bet that one of them has peed in the pool. While on the subject, it is good to wear flip-flops or slippers in those shower rooms in the gym. Some people pee as they sing in the shower. Â
May be the fruit fly is just opportunistic, venturing into whatever open door it encounters. Like the bugs that fly right into your throat during a morning run, forcing you to make quick life or death decision. Should you end its misery by washing it down with a sip of water, or should you try to save it by sputtering and spitting it out? Useless question because the result is always the same – death by drowning.
PS: Â Â I aced that genetics class. I got a creative and fabricated the data. I know, I knowâŚI am not proud of it.
PPS: Â Drosophilas in the kitchen is not an entirely negative thing. It is evidence that Mwende is trustworthy and has not been eating those mangoes you bought for the kids.
img credit – deviantart.com