Drosophila houseguests

Fruit-fly nervous system by Albert Cardona, via the Wellcome Trust. (2015) CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0,  https://flic.kr/p/rmVZg4 on Flickr. 

I have been keeping my tomatoes on the counter, mostly because if I can’t readily see my fresh produce, I forget to eat it. When garden and farmer’s market folks told me to keep them out of the fridge to preserve the flavor, I was already on board.

A dramatic reenactment with a nicer looking kitchen. Homegrown by Ewen Roberts (2015) CC By-SA 2.0, via Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/uqFe5k

I feel a little bit vindicated after my mom sent me an article about how refrigeration really *does* ruin tomatoes. Apparently, the cold temperatures interfere with the ripening process enzymes. Chilling the enzymes inhibits the release of volatile compounds which give tomatoes their flavor.

Additionally, I have also been going to some trouble to purchase home-grown tomatoes from the farm stand around the corner (along with squashes, peppers, and fresh corn the owners grow in the fields out back.) These tomatoes are so much more delicious than regular grocery-store tomatoes that it would be a shame to put them in the fridge.

However, indulging my tomato counter storage habit has produced one unintended consequence: I have hoards of tiny red-eyed fruit flies (aka vinegar flies, aka Drosophila melanogaster) swarming around my kitchen. The flies are pretty much harmless houseguests, with their chief vice of mostly being annoying to me.

Drosophila by Veljo  Runnel (2015) CC By-NC 2.0, on Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/zmDtDw

My first attempt to reduce my Drosophila population was by putting out a yogurt container full of apple cider vinegar, with the hope that the acetic-acid sotted flies would fall into the cup and drown. This did not happen. I may try some of these other home-made Drosophila traps.

Turns out with Drosophila, you can actually catch more flies with vinegar. Or I might try some Truvia (aka erythritol). A 6th grade science project which later became a university-led study, found that fruit flies who eat the stuff show motor impairments and significantly shorter lifespans.

However, after dealing with my insecticidal impulses, I considered Drosophila‘s history as a hero of genetic research. (Having once purchased one of these, I should know better.)
When I taught 9th grade biology, we spent quite a lot of time on Thomas Hunt Morgan’s sex chromosome research. As an undergrad at Columbia University, I was dimly aware of the “fly room” where Morgan conducted his experiments on the 6th floor of Schermerhorn Hall. (I think it was part of the geology department when I was there.) Filmmakers have created a new documentary about Morgan’s Fly Room in 603 Schermerhorn, which will be available for release on DVD and streaming in December 2016.

So all hail Drosophila melanogaster, my unwelcome houseguests. Turns out the tomato season in Michigan is ending very soon, anyway. If I hide the rest of my produce in the fridge, the infestation will mostly likely diminish as the flies die of old age.

Tangent for this post:
Drosophila also have an acute sense of smell.


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