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Fruit Flies Drink Alcohol To Deter Parasitic Wasps, Drosophila Melanogaster Study Suggests

Fruit Flies

The Huffington Post   First Posted: 02/17/2012 1:31 pm Updated: 02/21/2012 10:37 am

Bugs do drugs. That sounds like a line from bizarro-Doctor Seuss, but it's actually the word from Emory University scientists--who say that a type of fruit flies (scientists call them Drosophila melanogaster) consume alcohol to "self-medicate."

Why would they do that? To stave off pesky parasites.

"We believe our results are the first to show that alcohol consumption can have a protective effect against infectious disease, and in particular against blood-borne parasites," study author Dr. Todd Schlenke, an evolutionary geneticist at the university, said in a written statement. "It may be that fruit flies are uniquely adapted to using alcohol as medicine, but our data raise an important question: Could other organisms, perhaps even humans, control blood-borne parasites through high doses of alcohol?"

"High doses" is right. The overripe fruit the fly larvae feed on contains 5 percent to 15 percent alcohol. "They're essentially living in booze," Schlenke said of the flies, which are used commonly in biological research.

Schlenke said he wanted to test whether consuming all that alcohol could help fruit flies stave off the so-called "endoparasitoid" wasps that eat the flies from the inside out. So for a study appearing in the journal Current Biology, the researchers loosed some flies on a petri dish containing fly food (6 percent alcohol on half of the dish and alcohol-free on the other).

What happened? After 24 hours, 80 percent of the flies that were infected with wasps chose the alcohol side, while only 30 percent of the non-infected fruit fly larvae chose the alcohol side.

"The strength of the result was surprising," Schlenke said. "The infected fruit flies really do seem to purposely consume alcohol, and the alcohol consumption correlates to much higher survival rates."

We'll drink to that!

Clarification: We have revised the language in this post to make it clear that the two groups of fruit flies -- the wasp-infected and the uninfected -- were released separately on the food during the experiment.

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