Using flies and fish to unravel the mysteries of human health - Cincinnati Children's Blog

Using flies and fish to unravel the mysteries of human health

The ongoing debate over what constitutes wasteful government spending spurred a recent dinner conversation among friends over the use of federal tax dollars to study reproductive sciences in small fish and insects.

The discussion meandered into someone asking what the study of such matters has to do with the well being of people.

Talk about bugs and biomedical research is not typical dinner time fare. Still, an interesting question deserves a reasonably informed answer. At the moment, there are a number of federally (and privately) funded research projects underway at Cincinnati Children’s involving fruit flies, zebra fish and other small species to understand the molecular basis of embryonic organ development. The tiny creatures make excellent early research models to help unlock the developmental secrets of eyes, kidneys, the nervous system, and so on.

The reasoning goes that, if scientists can figure out what drives normal healthy embryonic development, and what can happen genetically and molecularly to cause abnormal development, then one might start building the basis for early research into new therapeutic concepts. Still, some people don’t appreciate the important biological connection between bugs and humans – and likely don’t care unless they find out they’re helping foot the bill for research funding.

Whether discussing a fruit fly, a zebra fish, a mouse or a person, all have similar fundamental molecular processes and, if you will, a similar “biological alphabet.”

Research scientists talk or write about a concept known as evolutionary conservation, or a gene that is evolutionarily conserved. This is a gene that, in essence, remains functionally important throughout evolution – including the branching off point between non-vertebrates and vertebrates. Usually this means the gene is unique and essential to a particular species – like flies – and higher life forms alike. For example, more than half of the genes known to cause disease in humans have a recognizable match in the fruit fly’s genetic code.

These components, in part, provide the connection and – in the context of biomedical research – powerful potential for meaningful discoveries when studying certain fish and insects. Those endeavors are proving to be quite informative to scientists looking for clues into birth defects and disease. Just in case anyone was wondering!

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Nick Miller

About the Author: Nick Miller

Nick is the science writer at Cincinnati Children’s and a former journalist. A newspaper reporter and editor for 20 years, Miller developed a knack for writing about cops, criminals, courts, the environment, and – of all things – decommissioning nuclear weapons plants. Miller left journalism to become a media relations and communications manager in the aviation industry. The career change was just in time for him to personally experience one of the worst industry downturns in the history of powered flight. His focus today is uncovering and telling stories about the amazing science coming out of the research laboratories of Cincinnati Children’s. He thinks the world should know more about the work of the medical center’s dedicated scientists – people who spend countless hours pursuing the discoveries of today, which may become the cures of tomorrow. When not haunting the halls of the research foundation, Nick spends his time preserving historic buildings and neighborhoods. He also works with local organizations trying to build bicycle/pedestrian trails, preserve green space and promote active lifestyles

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