Wanted: Bug Food Chef

Drosophila melanogaster, true to form, on a rotting banana. Credit…Bob Gibbons/Alamy

All of us, in small, quiet ways, should give thanks for people performing — pandemic or not — some of the truly lesser-known jobs out there.

Kevin Gabbart holds one such job: Fruit fly-food chef at Indiana University’s Drosophila Stock Center in Bloomington. He’s responsible for procuring and preparing vittles for many tens of thousands of fruit flies kept alive and comfortable in glass vials filling shelf after shelf in the Center.

The ‘drosophila’ part of its name refers to the tiny critters known to some if not most of us as huge fans of bananas. The proper scientific name of the flies, who prefer the over-ripe version of that popular fruit, is Drosophila melanogaster, it was noted earlier this week in a fascinating article in the New York Times.

Despite Their Size, They’re Hughly Important To Scientists

Why is there an impressively-sized lab dedicated to the propagating and care of these tiny (1/8th to 3/16th of an inch — .375 cm to ,187 cm) members of the Diptera order of insects? As it happens, fruit flies are much in demand by scientists and other researchers because more than half our genes are identical to theirs — and studies in which this or that gene is manipulated, or turned off, can lead to revelations of causes of cancer, among other things.

And, The Times article says, “Other work with the flies has shed light on diseases from Alzheimer’s to Zika, taught scientists about decision-making and circadian rhythms, and helped researchers using them to win six Nobel Prizes. Over a century of tweaking fruit flies and cataloging the results has made Drosophila the most well-characterized animal model we have.”

Continuing, the article adds: “The Bloomington Drosophila Stock Center is the only institution of its kind in the United States, and the largest in the world. It currently houses over 77,000 different fruit fly strains, most of which are in high demand. In 2019, the center shipped 204,672 vials of flies to labs in 49 states and 54 countries, said Annette Parks, one of the center’s five principal investigators.

Customers Keep Coming Back

It is “one of the jewels we have in the community,” said Pamela Geyer, a stem cell biologist at the University of Iowa who has been ordering flies from the stock center for 30 years.

Who knew?

While in truth few of us did, those who create the demand for the fruit flies know and fully appreciate the contribution the Bloomington Drosophila Stock Center makes to science. And those who work in the Center have proved during the pandemic to be so dedicated to their jobs — even bugs have to eat, don’t they? — that they’ve done whatever it’s taken to get in to work and get their jobs, whatever they may be, done as efficiently as at any other time.

But the past ten months haven’t been “any other time,” have they? Still, many of the Center’s clients have — of necessity — carried on much as usual. Research projects can’t (or shouldn’t) just be halted, or abandoned. So work, even when participating universities, etc., have been effectively shut down, has gone on in the research laboratories, and papers have, when appropriate, still been written. And the demand for the Center’s fruit flies has carried on.

Through the Pandamic, Bug Feeding, Etc. Has Carried On

None of which would have been possible, of course, if not just the fruit fly feeders but also those who regularly move them from one vial to a clean one, who sort and prepare them for shipping, and who do the record-keeping as well as the bill-collecting for the income the little critters provide.

Much of their support actually comes from grants, including from the National Institutes of Health, but end users also pay part of the freight (including the actual freight for shipping).

The Times article includes many more details of this surprisingly interesting subject. I encourage you to read it (via the link in the second paragraph).

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Doug Harris

Doug Harris

50+ years a writer, 80+ unique bylines. Two blogs have reached 60+ countries.