I think Stephanie Elizabeth Mohr has done us all a great service by writing this book. As a drosophilist myself (or in more common parlance, a fly-pusher) I understand completely why Drosophila is such a great model organism to work for genetics. It’s a damned shame though that this understanding has not really trickled down to the rest of the population, who just don’t get it the way we do. Mention that you’re being paid by the government to study flies, and people look at you all askew. I should know – I’ve been at the receiving end of it multiple times.
In reality, though, it’s hard to find an organism that has made a greater contribution to the field of genetics than the humble fruit fly. One of my university lecturers used to gently emphasise this by mentioning that Drosophila has five (now six) Nobel Prizes to its name, which is more than the rest of us have managed to achieve, thank-you-very-much. The role chromosomes play in heredity? Elucidated by Thomas Hunt Morgan and his lab, using Drosophila as a model. The effects X-rays have on mutation rates? Guess who Hermann Muller was zapping away on when he worked that one out?
Despite the fact they are small, six-legged and in possession of wings, there are still many biological processes we have in common with the fruit fly. And of the two of us, its the fly that breeds in greater numbers and in a shorter time; can have its mating directed by even the most aromantic researcher, and be subject to all the cool genetic tools that would just not be ethical if we tried them on ourselves. It’s like they’re begging to make themselves useful!
To demonstrate the wide range of biological studies Drosophila has contributed to in the last 100 years, Mohr splits her book into ten sections, each one with a simple topic header such as ‘Change’, ‘Defences’ and ‘Behaviour’. In each section, Mohr fluidly explains the details of the research within the relevant historical context, the impact Drosophila has had on the topic, as well as the current and future prospects. Some of these topics are very broad: for example, under ‘Defences’, we learn about Drosophila and their external predators, their response to viral infection, and the nature of insecticide resistance. It’s a deceptively brief title for such a wide range of subjects, but it can’t be denied that they all share a common thread.
Others, like cohesive and elegantly put together ‘Coordination’ are far more straightforward. In this chapter, we are introduced to Drosophila models for a number of conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, which is then followed by a discussion of the role Drosophila plays in the field of drug discovery and the potential for cures. For those people who have difficulty linking fly research to human outcomes, ‘Coordination’ should prove to be an eye-opening chapter.
I have to confess though, in addition to the ten topics given here, I would have liked to see population genetics getting a little more attention; perhaps with a mention of clinal studies in Drosophila. I understand it’s an area of research that’s a little less focused on molecular biology and more difficult to tie back to humans directly, but it’s a personal favourite of mine.
While a bit unorthodox, I thought the book’s structure worked rather well, and I enjoyed the deep dive into each of the topics. The only drawback I could find is that the broad break-down made it a bit difficult to remember where in the book a particular reference was if you need to go back to it later. However, a more traditional set up would have rendered it more like a textbook, which I think Mohr was trying to avoid.
Another thing I really like about First in Fly is the focus it gives on what scientists have to go through in order to obtain our data – we don’t sit there passively while our research subjects run around doing all the legwork for us. The data collection process can be an onerous task, as I know all too well.* In addition to the details provided in the main body of the book, Mohr provides a special appendix where she outlines several genetic screening strategies. One of the most extensive phenotyping efforts is detailed under the two headlines ‘The Most Famous Genetic Screen‘ and ‘10,000 Hedgehogs and Counting’ – and I’m not going to ruin it for you by providing the context for those.
My personal favourite phenotyping strategy though? Assaying alcohol-addled flies with a device known as an ‘inebriometer.’ Marvellous. If only we could make one to try out on drunk graduate students.
With regards to the intended audience; while I would love it if even a layperson was able to jump straight into this book and develop some drozzie-appreciation, I have to admit that that First in Fly is probably best approached with a little bit of background knowledge. Not much mind, but if you’re struggling to remember you high-school biology, this might be a bit of a tough read. But thankfully, it’s one that can easily be made more accessible with a Kindle or any other ebook version of the book – being able to quickly lookup unfamiliar terms and flick back and forth to the abbreviations list will really help.
But for those of you who are familiar with a bit of molecular biology, this should be a breeze. First in Fly is an effective review of what Drosophila genetics has achieved, and hopefully it will help foster a bit more respect for our six-legged friends.
For bingo-related purposes, I’m popping this under listicle, for best science books of 2018.
I confess, I have been reading and rereading this book on and off over the course of a year. It’s unfortunate, but whenever I really got into it, I would get guilty and remind myself of all the work-related papers I should be reading instead…
Quick edit 28/10
Yes! My old boss (to give credit where credit is due) sent me some photos of an inebriometer! Want to guess how it works?
*And it drives most of us a little batty. Take gene names, for example. We are notorious for our undisciplined gene names, which quickly becomes apparent int he book. And it’s my belief that we probably spend so much time making up ridiculous ones because we’ve all been driven ’round-the-bend.