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Drunken flies could pave way for alcoholism cure

Nov. 3, 2009
Courtesy Genetics Society of America
and World Science staff

Drunk­en fruit flies have helped re­search­ers iden­ti­fy whole net­works of genes—al­so found in hu­man­s—that play a key role in al­co­hol drink­ing be­hav­ior, ac­cord­ing to a stu­dy.

Sci­en­tists said the in­ves­ti­ga­t­ion iden­ti­fied mo­le­cules in the body that could serve as tar­gets on which drugs against al­co­holism might act.

Drunk­en fruit flies have helped re­search­ers iden­ti­fy whole net­works of genes—al­so found in hu­man­s—that play a key role in al­co­hol drink­ing be­hav­ior, ac­cord­ing to a stu­dy. (Pho­to cour­tesy Rick­ard Ig­nell)


The work al­so sheds light on many of the neg­a­tive side ef­fects of drink­ing, such as liv­er dam­age, and on why some peo­ple tol­er­ate al­co­hol bet­ter than oth­ers, said the re­search­ers, from North Car­o­li­na State and Bos­ton un­ivers­i­ties

Stud­ies “in which dis­cov­er­ies from mod­el or­gan­isms can be ap­plied to in­sights in hu­man bi­ol­o­gy, can make us un­der­stand the bal­ance be­tween na­ture and nur­ture, why we be­have the way we do,” said Rob­ert An­holt, a ge­net­i­cist at North Car­o­li­na State in­volved with the proj­ect.

An­holt and col­leagues timed how long it took for fruit flies to lose pos­tur­al con­trol af­ter ex­po­sure to al­co­hol. Mean­while, the re­search­ers meas­ured lev­els of ac­ti­vity in the in­sects’ genes. Us­ing sta­tis­ti­cal meth­ods to iden­ti­fy genes that work to­geth­er, the sci­en­tists pin­pointed ones that played a cru­cial role in the re­sponse to al­co­hol ex­po­sure.

The sci­en­tists then stud­ied wheth­er the same genes con­trib­ute to al­co­hol drink­ing habits in hu­mans. In­deed they do: ac­ti­vity in the hu­man coun­ter­part of a crit­i­cal gene in fruit flies could be di­rectly tied to al­co­hol con­sump­tion in hu­mans, said mem­bers of An­holt’s group.

The find­ings are pub­lished in the Oc­to­ber is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Ge­net­ics.

“From a sci­en­tif­ic point of view, re­search like this is al­most in­tox­i­cat­ing,” said Mark John­ston, editor-in-chief of the jour­nal. “We’ve known for a while now that ge­net­ics played a role in al­co­hol con­sump­tion, but now, we ac­tu­ally know some of the genes that are in­volved. As a re­sult of this work, we have a po­ten­tial drug tar­get for cur­ing this in­sid­i­ous con­di­tion.”


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Scientists are hard at work trying to find ways that would make alcohol addiction treatment more efficient and effective.

Drunken fruit flies have helped researchers identify whole networks of genes—also found in humans—that play a key role in alcohol drinking behavior, according to a study. Scientists said the investigation identified molecules in the body that could serve as targets on which potential anti-alcoholism drugs could act. The work also sheds new light on many of the negative side effects of drinking, such as liver damage, and on why some people tolerate alcohol better than others, said the researchers, from North Carolina State and Boston universities Studies “in which discoveries from model organisms can be applied to insights in human biology, can make us understand the balance between nature and nurture, why we behave the way we do,” said Robert Anholt a geneticist at North Carolina State involved with the project. Anholt and colleagues timed how long it took for fruit flies to lose postural control after exposure to alcohol. Meanwhile, the researchers measured levels of activity in the flies’ genes. Using statistical methods to identify genes that work together, the scientists pinpointed ones that played a crucial role in response to alcohol exposure. The scientists then studied whether the same genes contribute to alcohol drinking habits in humans. Indeed they do: activity in the human counterpart of a critical gene in fruit flies could be directly tied to alcohol consumption in humans, said members of Anholt’s group. The findings are published in the October issue of the research journal Genetics. “From a scientific point-of-view, research like this is almost intoxicating,” said Mark Johnston, editor-in-chief of the journal. “We’ve known for a while now that genetics played a role in alcohol consumption, but now, we actually know some of the genes that are involved. As a result of this work, we have a potential drug target for curing this insidious condition.”