Researchers at North Carolina State University have revealed that fruit flies have a genetic "switch" that makes them more tolerant to alcohol.
This metabolic switch also has implications for the deadly liver disease cirrhosis in humans.
A counterpart gene in humans contributes to a shift from metabolising alcohol to the formation of fat in heavy drinkers. This shift can lead to fatty liver syndrome - a precursor to cirrhosis.
In the study, the researchers measured the time it takes for flies to stagger due to alcohol intake while simultaneously identifying changes in the expression of all their genes.
They used statistical methods to identify genes that work together to help the flies adapt to alcohol exposure.
While looking at corresponding human genes, a counterpart gene called ME1 was found to be linked with alcohol consumption in humans, as people with certain variations of the gene showed a tendency to drink stronger alcoholic beverages.
Dr. Robert Anholt, William Neal Reynolds Professor of Biology and Genetics at NC State and the senior author of the study, says the research has possible clinical implications.
"Our findings point to metabolic pathways associated with proclivity for alcohol consumption that may ultimately be implicated in excessive drinking. Translational studies like this one, in which discoveries from model organisms can be applied to insights in human biology, can help us understand the balance between nature and nurture, why we behave the way we do, and - for better or worse - what makes us tick," he said.
The study has been published in the latest issue of the journal Genetics.