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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