Just when you thought candidates had clashed over every issue on the planet, along comes the fruit fly scandal.
Yes, the teensy winged insect, which scientists call in its common form Drosophila melanogaster, has emerged as a wedge issue.
If you’ve watched campaign ads for John Kline, the Republican who represents Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District, you know the rap against Drosophila.
Kline is a leading critic of the congressional practice of earmarking funds for specific projects in members’ districts. One of his TV ads features images of oversized fruit flies crawling on the screen. Kline appears amidst them saying that earmarks are “a massive abuse of your tax dollars, like . . . fruit fly research in France.”
Other Republicans in Minnesota and around the nation have sounded similar charges. This week, the party’s vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, said: “You’ve heard about some of these pet projects. They really don’t make a whole lot of sense. And sometimes these dollars they go to projects having little or nothing to do with the public good, things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.”
Scientists and bloggers on the left rushed to defend the research, sometimes vehemently.
“This is where the Republican party has ended up: supporting an ignorant buffoon who believes in the End Times and speaking in tongues while deriding some of the best and most successful strategies for scientific research,” wrote PZ Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota Morris who writes a popular science blog.
The fruit fly flap started last spring when the conservative group, Citizens Against Government Waste, published its annual report on what it considers to be pork barrel spending. The group awarded a “French Kiss Off Award” to Rep. Mike Thompson, a California Democrat, for pushing through a $211,509 earmark for fruit fly research in Paris.
Thompson told the Napa Valley Register that a type of fruit fly has infested thousands of California olive groves and “is the single largest threat to the U.S. olive and olive oil industries.”
He was securing funding in an appropriations bill, he said, for preventive research the U.S. Department of Agriculture wanted to conduct in France.
“This USDA research facility is located in France because Mediterranean countries like France have dealt with the Olive Fruit Fly for decades, while California has only been exposed since the late 1990s,” he said. “This is not uncommon; the USDA has several international research facilities throughout the world, including Australia, China and Argentina.”
The details of Thompson’s earmark became almost irrelevant in the charged rhetoric of this election year. What survived was the notion that the government was wasting money on silly research in France.
The French connection
Let’s dissect this fruit fly furor.
There are good reasons to reject earmark spending regardless of the worthiness of the projects funded. Kline has done so even when that put him in hot water over transportation funding in his district.
Of course, the French connection added extra outrage for some Americans, given the uproar in 2003 over France’s refusal to support the invasion of Iraq.
That leaves us with the question of why little Drosophila was chosen as an icon for wasteful spending. Flaky? Fruity? So small as to seem inconsequential? All were factors, no doubt.
But this little bug has been such a workhorse in science labs that it has been a vehicle for Nobel-prize winning research. For example, two Americans and a German won a Nobel in 1995 for using fruit flies to discover how genes control the human body’s development.
Remarkably, the fruit fly has about 75 percent of known human disease genes. Thus it’s an ideal model for studies of disease. It is cheaper to feed than lab mice. And it produces a new generation every two weeks or so.
Dr. Scott Selleck tells his students at the University of Minnesota to think of the human body as a Boeing 777 and the fruit fly as a small Cessna aircraft. They are different, but they share many components and systems. If something goes wrong and you want to examine the problem part by part, it’s much easier to do it in the Cessna.
“You tackle it in a system that’s a lot simpler, but the lessons you gain still are applicable,” he said.
Selleck’s lab uses fruit flies to study the genetic basis of a complicated disease called Tuberous Sclerosis. Kids who get it have benign tumors on the brain and other organs and they frequently develop seizures and some form of autism.
The disease is caused by mutations in two genes that regulate a signaling system for cell growth. Because fruit flies have the system too, the researchers are experimenting with the flies to gain understanding that should someday lead to better treatment for the kids. The studies are funded by the U.S. Department of Defense.
Selleck was not surprised to hear politicians scoff at fruit fly experiments.
“It happens quite often that fruit fly research is labeled as an example of wasteful spending by our government,” he said. “Gov. Palin is not the first one to take a bit of a swipe at it. . . . It’s really a function of not knowing the things that can be studied very productively in the fruit fly.”
What was disappointing in Palin’s case, though, is that she is seen as a champion for children with genetic disorders such as Tuberous Sclerosis.
“If I have a chance I will tell her about our work in fruit flies and convince her that there is something of value there,” Selleck said.
Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.