Scientists at the University of Maryland have discovered that fruit flies respond to insulin at the cellular level much like humans do.
This was shown in a finding that has the potential to significantly speed up diabetes research. Making these common, easily bred insects are good subjects for laboratory experiments in new treatments for diabetes.
The common fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster
looks like a sesame seed with wings, produces offspring by the thousands, and lives for around a month. These creatures don't resemble humans in any obvious way, but they share more than sixty percent of our genetic code. And scientists like UMD's Leslie Pick and Georgeta Crivat are finding that those similarities control basic biological processes that work alike in both species.
is easy to breed, raise and study in the laboratory, so it's widely used in research. Pick, chairman of the UMD Entomology Department, conducts experiments that use information about the fruit fly's relatively simple genome to illuminate biological processes in humans. Her recent research focuses on whether fruit flies use the hormone insulin the same way humans and other mammals do.
"We hope to use all the genetic tools we have available for flies, and the fact that we can breed them in huge numbers, very fast, to set up efficient screening tests for assessing new diabetes treatments," Pick said.
In a new study published Nov. 6 in the peer-reviewed online journal PLOS One
, Pick and her co-authors found the basic mechanisms that humans use to regulate blood sugar - the process that goes awry in diabetes - are indeed shared with flies.
In humans, insulin controls the production and movement of glucose, the form of sugar that fuels mammalian cells. The movement of glucose into individual cells begins when insulin binds to a specialized insulin receptor on a cell. That causes a sugar transporter called GLUT4 to move from the cell interior to its membrane, allowing glucose to flow through the membrane, moving from the bloodstream into the cell. In diabetics, this process fails and sugar accumulates in the blood. In the main types of diabetes - Type 1, in which the body cannot produce insulin, and Type 2, in which the cells stop responding to insulin - high blood sugar levels can gravely damage many organs. The disease is one of the world's most serious health problems.
Fruit flies' systems are very different than humans. Glucose is not their main form of sugar, and they don't have blood like mammals do, so researchers were not sure whether insulin played a role in their cells that is similar to humans. But in a 2009 experiment, Pick and colleagues used genetic engineering techniques to disable five insulin-like fruit fly genes.