Fruit flies force young to drink alcohol, for their own good

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | Feb. 22, 2013

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The fruit fly study adds to the evidence "that using toxins in the environment to medicate offspring may be common across the animal kingdom," says biologist Todd Schlenke. Photo by alexanderwild.com.

When fruit flies sense parasitic wasps in their environment, they lay their eggs in an alcohol-soaked environment, essentially forcing their larvae to consume booze as a drug to combat the deadly wasps.

The discovery by biologists at Emory University is being published in the journal Science on Friday, February 22.

“The adult flies actually anticipate an infection risk to their children, and then they medicate them by depositing them in alcohol,” says Todd Schlenke, the evolutionary geneticist whose lab did the research. “We found that this medicating behavior was shared by diverse fly species, adding to the evidence that using toxins in the environment to medicate offspring may be common across the animal kingdom.”

Adult fruit flies detect the wasps by sight, and appear to have much better vision than previously realized, he adds. “Our data indicate that the flies can visually distinguish the relatively small morphological differences between male and female wasps, and between different species of wasps.” 

The experiments were led by Balint Zacsoh, who recently graduated from Emory with a degree in biology and still works in the Schlenke lab. The team also included Emory graduate student Zachary Lynch and postdoc Nathan Mortimer.

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