Another Nobel Prize for the Fruit Fly on Research of Life-Cycle 3 Scientists
How was their monumental advance made? Not by studying humans — the “early birds” and “night owls” among us — but by studying the humble and ubiquitous fruit fly. This tiny insect turns out to be a major engine of modern biological discovery. Five Nobel Prizes have now been awarded to science originating from fruit fly research. That research uncovered the chromosomal nature of the gene, the mutagenic nature of radiation, the molecular blueprint that underpins animal bodies and core secrets of the immune defense system.
This simple fly is both cost- and time-efficient for laboratory studies, and it has a genetic and physiological makeup that is incredibly similar to our own. “Am not I/A fly like thee?/Or art thou not/A man like me?” asked William Blake. We now know that the answer, to a surprising extent, is yes.
Learning about human health from fruit flies may sound like a stretch — indeed, Sarah Palin mocked it during the 2008 presidential campaign — but it exemplifies a type of scientific inquiry called “basic research.” Also called “fundamental” or “pure” research (to forestall the misunderstanding that it is simplistic), basic research promotes curiosity-based exploration of the world, in contrast to “applied research” that is undertaken in an attempt to deliver a solution to a practical problem at hand.
The importance of government support for basic research goes well beyond understanding nature. Basic research leads to advances that can transform industry and technology. In biology, current revolutionary approaches to genome editing and cancer immunotherapy owe their existence to basic research.
Unfortunately, investment in this important work is under threat. This year, President Trump proposed budget cuts of 22 percent for the National Institutes of Health and 11 percent for the National Science Foundation. These two institutes fund most basic biological research in the United States. Congress pushed back, but some congressmen question the value of this kind of work, calling instead for funding that directly looks for cures for human disease.
What these congressmen don’t understand is that, time and again, it has been a foundational understanding of how animals (and plants, fungi and microbes) work that leads to effective disease treatments and improvement in human health. Basic biological research is medical research.
The breakthroughs that were celebrated worldwide on Monday originated 50 years ago, when an inspired student named Ronald Konopka in Pasadena, Calif., wondered what made newborn flies emerge most frequently at sunrise (Dr. Konopka died in 2015). We need to continue backing such curiosity-driven research so that more incredible discoveries can be brought to light.