The same genes that cause cancer in humans paint spots on fruit fly butts

The little black spots found on the fruit flies below may not seem like much — and really, they don't make any difference in the lives of the flies themselves — but they happen to have a terrifying genetic background.

The same genes that cause cancer in humans paint spots on fruit fly buttsS

Michigan Tech researchers Thomas Werner and Komal Kumar Bollepogu Raja have traced these black spots to three specific genes in the fruit fly genome. These particular genes all have counterparts in human DNA, and all three of these counterparts just so happens to cause cancer. Beyond the fact that we humans very clearly got the short end of the stick in terms of this particular genetic trade-off — seriously, reduced risk of cancer and I get cool black spots? — this finding offers some interesting possibilities for future research.

In a recent statement, Werner explained that these genes, which are uncontrolled and lethal in humans, were put to work in fruit flies painting these spots:

"We are looking here at proto-oncogenes, which are cancer genes that cause disease when they are active in an uncontrolled manner. Both humans and flies have them, and in flies they learned to paint black spots on the abdomen. And you get your evolutionary novelty without having to invent new genes.

"Many diseases like cancer and vertebra-related disabilities are caused by the 'misbehavior' of genes, when they are expressed at times and places or in amounts they are not supposed to be. Our work focuses on understanding how the cancer- and disease-causing genes in the fruit fly are regulated, and how they regulate their downstream target genes."

Werner and Raja also hope that these black spots can be useful in testing out new gene therapies to help treat cancers in humans. For more, check out the Michigan Tech website.

Top image by John Tann on Flickr.