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Scientists explore why fruit flies can drink you under the table

Leave your glass of wine unattended for a few minutes and you’ll come back to find it floating with fruit flies. If they die, you may be surprised to learn that the cause of death is drowning and not drunkenness. These tiny creatures have a high tolerance for alcohol and scientists are working to find out exactly why.

The thing that researchers agree on is why fruit flies need to be able to metabolize large amounts of alcohol. This amazing ability allows them to feast on rotting fruit that’s often quite full of ethanol. What they’re working to figure out is how their little bodies first adapted to do this.

At first, scientists thought that a molecular change in the Alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) protein was responsible for allowing D. melanogaster – or fruit flies – to process potently fermented fruit. Since ADH helps break down alcohol, this made perfect sense.

Then new evidence emerged. A team of researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln used genetic engineering to look at ancient ADH protein from modern fruit flies’ ancestors. They determined that the changes that have occurred in that protein did not actually improve their ability to metabolize alcohol.

The team published their findings in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Kristi L. Montooth, a researcher from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, says that while the findings support fruit flies’ high tolerance for alcohol, they dispute the longstanding hypothesis about why. The search continues. With this one out of the running, scientists are looking into other gene sequence changes that may hold the answer.

Researchers hope that future discoveries about alcohol tolerance in fruit flies could help reveal more about how the human body metabolizes the substance. More knowledge in this area could be good news for college students and club goers everywhere.

By Dawn Henderson, Staff Writer

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