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UW Neurobiologist Talks Up the Common Fruit Fly

May 11, 2011
Fruit Fly

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If you had told me a year ago that fruit flies were the new “it” thing, I probably would’ve laughed. But that was before I met Dr. Michael Dickinson, a neurobiologist here at the UW. After listening to him speak about experiments he has conducted on the tiny pests, I would argue that fruit flies are –pardon the obvious pun–the bee’s knees.

A prime reason: They’re actually geniuses. Okay, maybe not quite, but at least give Dickinson a chance to explain. “Their brains are more complex than human brains,” he says. “They’re able to accomplish so much with vastly fewer neuronal resources.”

To prove his point, he points to video clips of a previous experiment that he co-authored that demonstrate how flies escape “threats,” in this case the threat being an oversized black disk. The short, second-long video clips play like a scene from “Honey I Shrunk the Kids,” albeit without neon blue Lego houses and bumbling father in adorably nerdy glasses. Jumping gracefully from a platform, the fruit fly leaps into motion and adeptly escapes the disk in mere milliseconds. Though to the untrained eye this may be no great feat, Dickinson believes that this finding actually indicates that these miniscule beings have some of the most efficient circuitry in the animal world.

And now, according to Dr. Dickinson – who continues to experiment with fruit flies in his UW lab – researching the tiny nuisances may lead scientists to great technological advances, from building miniscule ‘fly-like’ machines to creating a basic model of complex circuits within the human brain.

Fruit flies. The new “it” thing. Who would’ve guessed?!?

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