News Release

Scientists uncover the underlying genetics that make flies champion fliers

A complex network of wing, muscle and nervous system genes all contribute to flight performance

Peer-Reviewed Publication


Scientists uncover the underlying genetics that make flies champion fliers

image: Fruit flies in the flight performance assay work to control their descent after an abrupt drop into a flight column. view more 

Credit: Spierer AN, et al., 2021, PLOS Genetics

Flies have developed excellent flying skills thanks to a set of complicated interactions between numerous genes influencing wing shape, muscle function, and nervous system development, as well as the regulation of gene expression during development. Adam Spierer and David Rand in collaboration with colleagues at Brown University identified these interactions, which they report March 18th in the journal PLOS Genetics.

Just like their name suggests, flies are exceptional fliers who rely on flight for vital tasks, like courtship, finding food and dispersing to new areas. But despite the importance of this ability, scientists know little about the genetics underlying flight performance. In the new study, Spierer, Rand and colleagues performed a genetic analysis, called a genome-wide association study, to identify genes associated with flight. Using 197 genetically different fruit fly lines, they tested the flies' ability to pull out of a sudden drop. Then, using multiple computational approaches, they related the flies' performance to different genes and genetics variants, as well as to networks of gene-gene and protein-protein interactions.

The researchers discovered that many genes and genetic variants involved in flight performance mapped to regions of the fly genome that determine wing shape, muscle and nervous system function, and regulate whether other genes are turned on or off. They also identified a gene called pickpocket 23 (ppk23) that serves as a central hub for regulating the interactions of these genes. Pickpocket family genes are involved in proprioception--a sense of how the body moves in space--and in detecting pheromones and other chemical signals.

This "snapshot" of the genetic variants that affect fruit fly flight performance may have implications for studying flight in other insects. Additionally, the researchers have demonstrated the benefit of using multiple approaches to unravel the complex genetic interactions underlying traits like flight, which involve a number of different genes.


Peer-reviewed; Experimental study; Animals

In your coverage please use this URL to provide access to the freely available article in PLOS Genetics:

Citation: Spierer AN, Mossman JA, Smith SP, Crawford L, Ramachandran S, Rand DM (2021) Natural variation in the regulation of neurodevelopmental genes modifies flight performance in Drosophila. PLoS Genet 17(3): e1008887.

Funding: This work and A.N.S. are supported by National Institutes of Health R01 GM067862 (to D.M.R.). L.C. is supported by grants P20GM109035 (COBRE Center for Computational Biology of Human Disease; PI Rand) and P20GM103645 (COBRE Center for Central Nervous; PI Sanes) from the NIH NIGMS, 2U10CA180794-06 from the NIH NCI and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute (PIs Gray and Gatsonis), an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship, and a David & Lucile Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering. S.P.S. is a trainee in the Brown University Predoctoral Training Program in Biological Data Science, supported by NIH T32 GM128596-02. This work was also supported by US National Institutes of Health R01 GM118652 (to S.R.), and S.R. acknowledges additional support from National Science Foundation CAREER Award DBI-1452622. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

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