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How Fruit Flies Can Boost Life And Biomedical Sciences In Nigeria

Rashidatu Abdulazeez & Prof. Andreas Prokop

Monday, 20 July 2020

Biomedical research requires 'model organisms'

Understanding human or animal disease is a challenge, owed to the body's complex biology but also the obvious restrictions to experimental investigation in humans or even large animals. As a proxy for studying diseases and their underlying biology, many scientists use smaller animals, referred to as 'model organisms'. This strategy makes sense because animals and humans have common evolutionary origins and share common genes and biology. Once fundamental understanding has been gained through research in small animals, it can be applied to inform and accelerate medical or pharmaceutical investigation. Typical model organisms for biomedical research are mammals such as mouse or rat, or vertebrates such as frogs, chicken or even zebrafish.

But flies?

It might surprise that the use of model organisms can be stretched even further. For example, humans share essential genes with baking yeast. This is illustrated by experiments where almost 200 strains of baking yeast, each carrying a different fatal gene aberration, could be restored to survival by introducing the corresponding intact human gene. This means that the common ancestor of humans and yeast living a billion years ago, already had biology and genes sophisticated enough to be maintained to this day in wide range of very different organisms.

Similar statements can be made about the fruit or vinegar fly 'Drosophila melanogaster' (Hausa: 'Bi tsami', Yoruba: 'Ishin kanrin', Igbo: 'Ehuwo', Calabar: 'Ntiyeea', Edo: 'Etutu'), the 3 mm small creature that buzzes around our leftover foods and rotten fruits. Fruit flies have a recognisable match for ~75% of known human disease genes underlying conditions such as cancer, diabetes, epilepsy or neurodegeneration. Seizures of epileptic flies are cured by human drugs for this condition, clearly demonstrating the applicability of fly research. This is further illustrated by 9 scientists awarded the Nobel Prize in 'Physiology and Medicine' for their work in flies.

Advantages of fly research

The biology of Drosophila has been studied for over 100 years, and it is the best understood animal organism on this planet. It offers enormous advantages to the researcher: it is small and therefore easy to keep and convenient to study under the microscope. It develops from egg to adult in only 7-10 days saving valuable research time, and it is very cost-effective: keeping 10 different fly strains in the laboratory for one month costs about ₦7,000 and requires hardly any infrastructure; maintaining 10 mouse lines would cost in excess of ₦300,000 and require purpose-built breeding facilities. Such costs amount even more in ageing research where individual mice have to be maintained for more than a year before experiments can even start, whereas flies show all the typical hallmarks of ageing at ~50 days and are then available in large numbers for analyses or drug tests.

To carry out fly research, lots of strategies and resources are readily available, their genes are easy to manipulate, and all modern technologies such as CRISPR are well established in Drosophila. Unlike vertebrate model organisms, fly research does not require ethical approval, allowing to move unhindered from experimental planning to execution and saving enormous time and effort. Taken together, fly is an ideal model to address the complex problems posed by biology with powerful and highly flexible strategies.

This said, flies are not mini-humans. For example, flies have no bones and no antibody-producing immune cells. But there is a long list of topics that can be studied, ranging from stem cells to cancer, nervous system function including learning and memory to neurodegeneration, as well as mechanisms of host-parasite interactions such as in Malaria. Many of these topics match the research portfolios of Nigerian scientists.

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Drosophila as a model system

Why Nigeria should invest in fruit flies research

The key challenges that Nigerian scientists face are poor infrastructure and research funding. Nevertheless, we are faced with having to deliver reproducible and impactful research which addresses our societal problems within shortest possible time. We have to teach and mentor the younger generation of scientists whilst publishing to match the world standards of science and science education.

Drosophila can be an important facilitator and help to square this circle by shifting the balance between investment and outcome in our favour. As has been explained in greater detail above, “you get 10 times more biology for a dollar invested in flies than you get in mice” (Hugo Bellen), and these enormous savings would then be available for infrastructural investments to raise research standards and capabilities.

Feasibility, support and future prospects

The feasibility, opportunities and benefits of this strategy are clearly demonstrated by the successful work of Dr. Amos Abolaji of the Department of Biochemistry, College of Medicine, University of Ibadan. By capitalising on Drosophila research, he has been able to publish in international journals and obtain collaborative grants from international funding organisations. Dr. Abolaji is now setting up the 'Drosophila Research & Training Centre', as a hub for fly investigation, to maintain and distribute different Drosophila strains and to train scientists from Nigeria and other Sub-Saharan African countries. Other departments such as Department of Zoology at Zaria's Ahmadu Bello University, the Department of Botany at University of Jos, the Departments of Biochemistry at Akure's Federal University of Technology, Osun State University and Ota's Covenant University, as well as the Departments of Anatomy at the University of Lagos and Backcock University are also successful in various Drosophila research.

Further organisations that offer support on this path are DrosAfrica and TReND in Africa, and backed by the Manchester Fly Facility We recently launched the  droso4Nigeria initiative dedicated to sharing training resources online, engaging in school outreach, and further promoting the formation of a Nigerian Drosophila community.

We strongly feel that Nigerian science would benefit from a fly community which can help to raise the international research profile of our country, and heighten standard of education through improved infrastructure and research skills gradually building up in our universities and science institutes.

We want to call therefore on the Nigerian Scientists and the Government to utilize the power of the fruit fly in developing our science and science capacity in Nigeria.

Ms. Rashidatu Abdulazeez is a Lecturer and Manager Drosophila Laboratory, Department of Zoology, Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, Nigeria. She is also a Fellow of the African Science Literacy Network.

Mr. Andreas Prokop is a Professor of Drosophila Genetics and Head of Manchester Fly Facility, University of Manchester, UK.

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