One of the most exciting prospects of biological inquiry lies in its potential to explain the peculiarities of our own lives. Human behavior provides some of the most spectacular examples of the output of a fundamentally biological system, the brain, but despite decades of remarkable research spanning the scale of neurotransmitters, to brain hemispheres, to interactions on the internet, we struggle to firmly explain the biological (and environmental) underpinnings of any given human behavior.
Luckily, some of our behaviors aren’t exclusive to our species. Chimpanzees seem to mourn the death of family members. Ants are capable of organizing into social hierarchies that eerily resemble human social structures. Even the lowly fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, goes through bouts of light and heavy sleep that resemble human sleep cycles. All these examples suggest that the biology of behavior might be conserved in the same way that many genes are conserved from fly to human, and hint that perhaps the same genes control similar behaviors in wildly different organisms – a hint that tantalizes scientists to this day.
A century ago, when the fruit fly was popularized as a model organism by the lab of Thomas Morgan, these similarities were fairly well-appreciated, but tools for manipulating fly genetics and observing fly behavior were lacking. Fifty years later, researchers were better-prepared to manipulate the fruit fly genome, thanks to advances made in prior decades with mutating the fly genome with x-rays. In 1963, a researcher at Yale named Kulbir Gill used this technology to create mutant flies that lacked the typical behavioral program ensuring male pursuit of female partners for reproduction. These mutant male flies courted male and female partners equally, and utterly failed to reproduce. Gill dubbed this mutation ‘fruity,’ a less-than-appropriate pun on the fruit fly and its mating strategy, but limited his observations to a short note in a fly journal, declining to investigate further.
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