Scientists uncover the underlying genetics that make flies champion fliers

01 April 2021


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.

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