To most people, fruit flies are the annoying little creatures that materialize when bananas turn brown, and are difficult to eradicate.

To genetic researchers, though, the common fruit fly – or Drosophila melanogaster – is invaluable.

“It’s almost amazingly easy to do molecular genetics with fruit flies,” said Harold “Dusty” Dowse, a former biologist at the University of Maine. “They are easy to mutate. You can engineer genes. The biology is straightforward and well-developed. Some of the really major advances in science – including understanding what genes are – have come from fruit flies.”

Dowse is a one-time colleague of Jeffrey C. Hall, who along with Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young won a Nobel Prize on Monday for their decades-old research using the molecular genetics of fruit flies to study the body’s circadian rhythms.

“With exquisite precision, our inner clock adapts our physiology to the dramatically different phases of the day,” the committee said. “The clock regulates critical functions such as behavior, hormone levels, sleep, body temperature and metabolism.”

At the molecular level, there are dozens of little clocks inside bodies that control everything from body temperature to blood pressure to sleep cycles. They anticipate the rising and setting sun.

The research conducted by Hall, Rosbash and Young, unprecedented until then, opened the door to advancements in studying how humans’ internal or biological clocks contribute to their health and well-being.

The Nobel committee, in its citation, noted that their work was pivotal because if a person’s lifestyle and his or her inner clock are not in sync – for example, experiencing jet lag after a long airplane flight that crosses several time zones – that could affect a person’s health and could eventually contribute to risks for some diseases.

Fruit flies, like mice, have long been used by genetics researchers because of their short life-cycle and resiliency.

Hall, seeking to branch out from traditional research while he was a professor of biology at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, began studying fruit fly courtship behavior, including the male’s courtship song, made by vibrating its wings. From that, Hall and others then discovered that a previous mutant developed in the 1960s would alter its courtship song just as it changed circadian rhythms – stretching or shrinking each accordingly. In other words, the mutated flies had faulty internal clocks.

Hall and his colleagues were then able to isolate the so-called “period gene,” clone it and study circadian clock mechanisms.

Other researchers used those findings to raise awareness about the importance of getting proper sleep. In addition, the original research has contributed to how and when some prescription drugs are used. Drugs used to lower cholesterol are often taken at night because that is when enzyme levels are highest.

“Molecular, neurobiological and behavioral studies of period ended up cracking the case of circadian rhythms,” Hall said in a 2005 profile in Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Science. “The outcome of these studies made circadian rhythms no longer one of these strange biological mysteries on the Third Rock.”

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

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