Fly: The Unsung Hero of 20th-Century Science

Fly: The Unsung Hero of Twentieth-Century Science
Fly: The Unsung Hero of Twentieth-Century Science Amazon

Fly: The Unsung Hero of 20th-Century Science
Martin Brookes
The Ecco Press

Early in the 20th century, as scientists investigated Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution, researchers relied upon a small menagerie of creatures, including aphids, frogs, toads, wild rats, mice and even earthworms. Then, in 1910, geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan suggested that one of his Columbia University graduate students use fruit flies in an experiment. The study would test whether the subjects’ eyes decreased in size when generation upon generation—a sequence of 49 in all—lived in complete darkness.

In fact, no change whatever occurred. But the otherwise unremarkable experiment yielded an unexpected bonus. As Martin Brookes writes in his engaging Fly: The Unsung Hero of 20th-Century Science, Morgan realized the lowly fruit fly offered his team a chance to study evolution in fast-forward mode. Fruit flies did what other animals did, only faster and cheaper. Birth, sex and death occurred within a couple of wild and woolly weeks. A half-pint milk bottle and some rotting fruit provided low-cost habitat and food. "It is wonderful material," Morgan wrote to a friend. "They breed all year and give a new generation every twelve days."

Morgan and his team created the "Fly Room" in Columbia’s Schermerhorn Hall, breeding millions of flies for use in genetic studies. "Before the fly," Brookes writes, "ideas about biological inheritance were a strange amalgam of crackpot hypotheses, myth and superstition. But at Columbia, the subject was rapidly transformed into a coherent science as Morgan and the fly began to lay the foundations of modern genetics."

Brookes’ lively account surveys the history of 20th-century biology, using the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, as a guide. Not only did Drosophila-based research pioneer modern genetics, it continues to aid in the exploration of cloning, aging, addiction, gene therapy, memory and sex differences. "The rules that apply to a population of flies," Brookes notes, "are the same as those that apply to populations of moths, aardvarks and humans—even to a population of cancer cells in a growing, evolving tumour."

Brookes’ story never descends to the mind-numbing minutiae of a biology textbook, as he introduces us to an intriguing cast of characters, including Hermann Muller, the University of Texas researcher who first used x rays to induce mutations in fly chromosomes and who later won the 1946 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

To conclude his journey through a fly’s century, Brookes goes to Columbia, looking for the Fly Room created by Morgan and his colleagues. He finds Schermerhorn Hall and walks the corridors. But the room no longer exists, he later learns; not so much as a commemorative plaque marks the spot.

Fortunately, Brookes has created his own delightful tribute to the fruit fly’s enduring legacy.

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