Fruit Flies, Sleep and Translin: What's It All Mean to You?

04/11/2016 07:45 am ET | Updated Apr 11, 2016

Those pesky fruit flies that often hover around at inopportune times have more in common with you than you may realize when it comes to sleep. Therefore, researchers at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) felt they'd be the ideal subject to shed light on the link between sleep deprivation and metabolic disorders like diabetes and obesity.

For example, fruit flies get most of their sleep at night. Also -- much like people -- their sleep is negatively impacted when they're exposed to certain drugs or stimulants such as caffeine. Furthermore, if they don't receive sufficient amounts of sleep, their memory performance suffers -- again, this is precisely what occurs with humans.

In studying these minuscule winged creatures, much was learned about the correlation between sleep habits and metabolic issues.

"In humans, sleep and feeding are tightly interconnected, and pathological disturbances of either process are associated with metabolism-related disorders," said Alex C. Keene, Ph.D. Keen is the corresponding author and associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences on FAU's John D. MacArthur Campus in Jupiter, Florida. He maintains that while it's well known that sleep deprivation plays a role in metabolic changes, "little is known about the molecular basis of this interaction and how these processes integrate within the brain."

Introducing...T ranslin

The researchers set out to learn more about this molecular basis in what ultimately became the first study to identify a gene called translin. Translin regulates sleep in response to metabolic changes. The full study, which is published in the April 4 issue of Current Biology, explains that translin is a "highly conserved RNA/DNA binding protein" and an "essential integrator of sleep and metabolic state."

When fruit flies are hungry, for example, they forego sleep because they are focused on finding food. The researchers provided the fruit flies with various diets and created a range of sleep scenarios so they could test the genes that didn't affect their sleep. Translin, they found, caused the starving fruit flies to sleep just as soundly as they would on a full stomach. Ultimately, it was found that translin is not needed for starvation to be perceived nor is it necessary to stimulate hunger-related behaviors. However, it is required to stimulate wakefulness in foraging situations, as is the case in the absence of food.

According to the published study:

Here, we describe the identification of translin (trsn), a highly conserved RNA/DNA binding protein, as essential for starvation-induced sleep suppression. Strikingly, trsn does not appear to regulate energy stores, free glucose levels, or feeding behavior suggesting the sleep phenotype of trsn mutant flies is not a consequence of general metabolic dysfunction or blunted response to starvation.

"While many genes have been identified as genetic regulators of sleep or metabolic state, mounting evidence from our study indicates that translin functions as a unique integrator of these processes," said Kazuma Murakami, co-first author and a Ph.D. student in the FAU/Max Planck Florida Institute Integrative Biology and Neuroscience (IBAN) program. "We also have been able to show that this gene is not required for general modulation of sleep. Furthermore, we now know that the energy stores in mutant flies are normal and that the starvation-induced sleep suppression phenotype is not due to increased nutrient storage."

"The identification of genes regulating sleep-feeding interactions will provide important insight into how the brain integrates and controls the expression of complex behaviors," said Keene.

Getting Sleep Down to a Science

In a society where sleep is often considered a sign of laziness and lack of it is frequently deemed a badge of honor, it's refreshing to know that studies dedicated entirely to the act are being conducted. Clearly, there's more to it than getting upwards of eight hours of shut-eye nightly while freshly-laundered sheets envelope our tired bodies (although that's certainly important and very pleasant), as Arianna Huffington discusses in her latest book The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time (available everywhere books are sold on April 5, 2016).

Delving into the biology behind it all, to include brain perception as it relates to metabolic disorders -- as this study did -- further reinforces the importance of continually educating ourselves about this essential topic.

Are you ready to start a #SleepRevolution? Sleep more, dream big and continue to learn as much as possible about every intricate detail that makes slumber such a beneficial habit.

Follow on Twitter: @JenSunshine