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Let's Talk About (Fruit Fly) Sex
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Let’s Talk About (Fruit Fly) Sex

The fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster has been the preferred model system for the study of numerous biological processes for decades, if not centuries. These little beasts are amenable to genetic manipulation, are relatively easy to keep in captivity, and have all sorts of physical traits that make them useful to scientists. Even though I work with frogs, I spend at least half my time reading about flies.

But I don’t usually read about fruit fly sexy times, so today I made an exception, and read a paper about what lady Drosophila do after getting jiggy. It caught my eye mostly because one of the labs upstairs studies fruit fly courtship, so I’ve been lucky enough to watch many videos of these insects flirting. I was even introduced to the difficulty of trying to record them singing their mating songs over the hum of the building’s air conditioning. Just look at them go:

As you can see, it’s a fairly elaborate process. It’s also a highly orchestrated one, and the genes that control these behaviors have been very carefully mapped out. And here’s another part of Drosophila biology I love; the names of the genes. Doublesex, fruitless, pickpocket, Sex Peptide…OK so that last one is a bit lame. Anyway, these genes all interact in specific neuronal circuits to direct the courtship behaviors of both males and females.

After sex, however, these behaviors are markedly changed in the female fly. She no longer runs around coyly, looking back over her shoulder at the persistent male, and tapping her dainty feet provocatively. Instead, she puts all her efforts into laying her now fertilized eggs.

In a recent paper published in Current Biology, scientists from the Universities of Oxford and Glasgow and Harvard Medical School have shown on a molecular level how this post-mating behavior is controlled in the nervous system of the female fly. Genes previously implicated in courtship behavior, doublesex and fruitless, are expressed in neurons in the uterus. When the male ejaculates he deposits Sex Peptide along with his sperm. This small protein binds to receptors on the uterin neurons, which in turn relay a signal to the fly’s brain. Importantly, they then tracked the responses in the brain, and found that the mating signal was passed along to neuronal circuits controlling the physical aspects of egg-laying.

But what does this all mean?? It means that fruit flies are a fantastic model system for understanding the neural circuitry underlying complex behaviors (among many other things), and that Drosophila research will be a mainstay of biology departments the world over, no matter what Sarah Palin thinks.


Katie Pratt is a graduate student in Molecular Biology at Brown University. She has a passion for science communication, and in an attempt to bring hardcore biology and medicine to everyone, she blogs jargon-free at www.katiephd.com. Follow her escapades in the lab and online on Twitter.


Be the first one to mind the gap by filling in where the genes are expressed as a comment and get your name in the blog along with a sweet new BenchFly mug!

UPDATE! Congratulations to Ruben C – winner of this week’s Mind the Gap!

About the winner: Ruben is a geneticist at the University of Malta studying the role of RNA-binding proteins in neurodegeneration.

About the prize: In addition to fame and glory beyond their wildest dreams, winners receive our new hot-off-the-presses large (15 oz) BenchFly mug to help quench their unending thirst for scientific knowledge… or coffee. Check out where the mug has traveled – will you be the first in your state or country to win one?

Miss a previous edition of Mind the Gap? Shame on you! Don’t worry – we’ve got you covered:

This is Not an Article About Running Viruses

How is a Dormouse Like a Career Scientist?

With Great Power Comes Great Violin Strings

Tweet Tweet? TWEEEET!!

All the Better to See Sperm Whales With, My Dear

Saw VII: The Revenge of the Sawfish

Caution: Objects May Appear Larger Than They Really Are

Facebook Updates: The Good, The Bad, and The Vague

Scared of Dropping the Soap? Worry No More.

New Year’s Lab-olutions

A Social Network for Food: Why Won’t Vanilla Friend Garlic?

I’d Rather Die Fat and Young than Old and Skinny


4 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. ruben c

    wrote on June 6, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    reproductive system

  2. alan@benchfly

    wrote on June 6, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    Close! (looking for specific part of reproductive system)

  3. ruben c

    wrote on June 6, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    more specific – uterus

  4. alan@benchfly

    wrote on June 6, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    We've got a winner!

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