Why funding fruit fly research is important for the biomedical sciences

This blog post was originally published in the Journal Open Access Government. and provides a concise overview of the rationales for fruit fly research in the biomedical sciences.

Prologue: an impressive past and presence

For 30 years I have been studying the nervous system of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, the tiny insect that hovers over our fruit bowls in summer (Prokop, 2016). You may wonder why anybody would invest professional time or public money in something that seems more of a private hobby than serious research. But I am not alone: fruit flies have been intensively studied for over 100 years, and worldwide over 10.000 scientists are currently estimated to engage in fly research; and their work has great impact: nine (arguably ten) researchers have received a Nobel Prize in ‘Physiology or Medicine’ for their work in Drosophila – the last one as recently as 2017 (Fig. 1). As will be explained here, the biomedical sciences would be very far behind their current status quo without research in fly or other simple organisms, such as the nematode worm C. elegans or baker’s yeast.

Fig. 1 Researchers awarded with the Nobel Prize for work on Drosophila in 1933, 1946, 1995, 2004 (only marginally for fly work), 2011 and 2017. For image sources click here.

Why the fly? A historical perspective

Fig. 2 Flies as an efficient starting point of a translational pipeline.

Kick-starting genetics

Mere serendipity set in motion the long-lasting interest in fruit flies: in 1910, studies on evolution by Thomas Hunt Morgan led to the almost accidental finding that genes lie on chromosomes. This started the era of Genetics – with Drosophila research leading the field unravelling how genes are organised, become mutated or interact with each other (Allchin, 1997; Brookes, 2001; Kohler, 1994).

Genetics as a tool

In the middle of the 20th century, researchers started to use Drosophila genetics to address the essential question of how genes work and determine biology. In the same way as mutations in humans cause inherited diseases that tell us something about the biological relevance of those genes, mutations can be used in Drosophila research as a tool to dissect and understand biological processes. The fly was ideal because genetic manipulation techniques were well established, its generation cycle of only 10 days allowed fast progress, and the ease of keeping big numbers of flies, facilitated systematic ‘mutational screens’ to search for new genes that contribute to biological processes (Fig. 2). Drosophila became “a boundary object par excellence, residing in the interstices of two major disciplines, genetics and embryology” (Keller, 1996). Together with the advent of molecular biology (to decipher and manipulate genes) and advances in biochemistry (to study the protein products of genes), fly research turned into a gold mine for discovery. For example, genes that mediate embryonic development, nervous system function or even the ability to learn were discovered and studied, pioneering fundamental understanding of those processes (Mohr, 2018).

A translational path to humans

Through parallel work in vertebrate animals, in particular the mouse, it became increasingly clear that fundamental concepts discovered in the fly seemed to apply to all animals: genes studied in mammals turned out to be very similar in structure and function to their fly equivalents; in some cases it was even shown that genes from fly and mouse were interchangeable. The scale of this ‘evolutionary conservation’ became clear when the human and fly genomes were sequenced and compared. As Ethan Bier and colleagues commented at the time: “… about 75% of known human disease genes have a recognisable match in the genome of fruit flies” (Reiter et al., 2001). The fundamental truth behind this statement was unequivocally documented by a systematic study using 414 yeast strains with lethal mutations, of which almost half could be ‘cured’ by introducing the equivalent human gene (Kachroo et al., 2015; Leslie, 2015). Therefore, fundamental processes of biology and the genes involved are ancient; organisms that shared their last common ancestor a billion years ago have maintained many of these fundamental functions to astonishing degrees. This concept of ‘deep homology’ explains the above mentioned Nobel laureates: through their work they have laid foundations for fundamental understanding of biological processes which can explain to us what goes wrong in human disease and pave the translational path into the quest for cures.

The importance of Drosophila research is undiminished

The last decades have brought new strategies for research in mice and other vertebrate animals that have now turned also these organisms into true boundary objects. The fairly recent advent of CRISPR technology is widely seen as the magic silver bullet that has finally closed the experimental gap to research in smaller invertebrate models. However, I would argue that this is a dangerous misconception likely leading to increased research costs, unnecessary use of animals and a slow-down in scientific advance.

Hugo Bellen, a renowned and highly successful researcher, was cited to have said: “You get 10 times more biology for a dollar invested in flies than you get in mice” (Levitan, 2015). To illustrate this point, keeping 400 fly stocks requires one stand-alone incubator and £100 a month to pay for food vials and 4-6hrs of work (Fig. 3); maintaining the same number of mouse strains readily accessible would take at least £12.000 a month and a vast housing facility. Furthermore, CRISPR technology certainly has enormously accelerated mouse research, but it is also well established in Drosophila and has enhanced the possibilities of fly research to the same degree. Many more arguments can be listed (Prokop, 2015), but I would like to focus here on one last, enormously important aspect: the fact that biology is complex.

Fig 3. Maintaining and handling flies in the laboratory. A) A ~10 cm high vial containing flies. B) 400 different fly stocks kept in one incubator. Genetic crosses are performed under a stereo microscope (C) on CO2-dispensing porous pads (D) to carefully inspect the immobilised flies (E).

Thus, to understand inherited diseases, it is often not sufficient to gain important knowledge of the affected genes and their products; it requires an understanding of the usually complex functional networks in which they operate (Prokop, 2016). An important strategy to unravel complex genetic networks is the simultaneous manipulation of two or more genes in the same individual – a task that is routinely performed in a fly laboratory, but enormously laborious and time-consuming in mice. Furthermore, experiments, even if based on well-informed rationale, often fail. In fly, such failure is unfortunate but can be easily absorbed, since time and money invested are usually low, with alternative experiments being set up in a matter of days or weeks rather than months or beyond. Hence, work in fly gives access to flexible experimentation, where try-and-error is a feasible strategy to overcome the challenging enigmas posed by biological complexity.

Conclusions

Understanding biology is the lifeblood for translational research into human disease and, as I have argued here, Drosophila research is a powerful generator of such understanding. Certainly, fly is NOT a mini-human. For example, it cannot be used to study arthritis or fibrosis, but it can be used to understand fundamental concepts of extracellular matrix regulation underlying those problems. In the context of Alzheimer’s disease, flies are unsuited to study personality loss, but can be used to address the still unresolved important question of how this condition triggers nerve cells to die. In any case, the use of any experimental models should always be carefully justified. Consequently, funding panels should, in my opinion, more often question the uses of higher animals where fundamental concepts could be pioneered more efficiently in simpler models – thus spending research money responsibly and speeding up the discovery process.

 

The author, Andreas Prokop, is Professor for Neurobiology at The University of Manchester. As academic head of the ‘Manchester Fly Facility’, and together with his colleague Sanjai Patel, he drives the ‘droso4public’ science communication initiative advocating the wider awareness of fly research (droso4public.wordpress.com). Part of this initiative is the ‘droso4schools’ project (droso4schools.wordpress.com) aiming to establish Drosophila also as a powerful teaching tool in school biology lessons.

Cited literature

A novel engaging approach to teaching life cycle and evolution in KS2 classrooms (primary schools)

This blog post was written for school teachers and will hopefully soon be published on a suitable blog site that reaches teacher audiences. It has been put up here to serve as reference for “droso4schools” activities. It describes our first primary school resources and first event on which we tried them out in their final form, accompanied by evaluation.

Prologue: a need to bring nature into classrooms

Nature is fascinating. One can easily be gripped by the many natural history documentaries engaging us with fascinating insights into the plant and animal world. My kids can still be tempted to watch them together with us, but would unfortunately not pick them if given a free choice. But isn’t it that the more we know about nature around us, the more we care for it? Can schools be a place where to address this challenge? The two lesson resources I am describing here can help teachers to bring natural history spirit and practical science into primary school classrooms whilst teaching the curriculum-relevant topics of life cycle and evolution.

Fig. 1 Some of the insect images used in this resource. For details see our website.

Why I developed these teaching resources

The topics of inheritance, evolution, life cycle and ageing are key specifications of the English KS2 curriculum (Box 1). I learned about all these topics during my traditional university biology education 30 years ago. Although I now work on very different areas of biology, those memories still live on vividly, which is why I am convinced of the powerful influence of early experiences. Such prolonged impact seems to work similarly for pupils at younger age (Archer et al., 2012; Croll, 2008; Maltese and Tai, 2011) emphasising that we must care about excellent school teaching of science and natural history.

Box 1 Statutory guidance for the national science curriculum of key stages 1 and 2 (Department for Education, 2015)

Pupils should be taught to

  1. describe the differences in the life cycles of a mammal, an amphibian, an insect and a bird
  2. describe the life process of reproduction in some plants and animals
  3. describe how living things are classified into broad groups according to common observable characteristics and based on similarities and differences, including micro-organisms, plants and animals
  4. give reasons for classifying plants and animals based on specific characteristics
  5. describe the changes as humans develop to old age
  6. recognise that living things have changed over time and that fossils provide information about living things that inhabited the Earth millions of years ago
  7. recognise that living things produce offspring of the same kind, but normally offspring vary and are not identical to their parents
  8. identify how animals and plants are adapted to suit their environment in different ways and that adaptation may lead to evolution

A second incentive for generating these resources comes from my scientific research based on using Drosophila melanogaster, the tiny fruit flies that hover over our fruit bowls in summer (Prokop, 2016). I use these flies for good reason, because more than a century of intense research have made them the animal organism with the best understood biology on this planet (Prokop, 2018b; Why fly?). This unique understanding offers fantastic opportunities not only for research, but also to enrich biology teaching in schools: with (1) conceptually well understood contents (including all topic areas mentioned in Box 1), (2) many relevant examples and anecdotes, as well as (3) numerous micro-experiments that are easy to perform in classrooms (Manchester Fly Facility, 2015). Astonishingly, many aspects of fly and human biology are so similar that Drosophila research has helped us understand many aspects of our own bodies and even human diseases. This shared biology can be capitalised on in classrooms: for example by first using fly to explain fundamental concepts to then demonstrate how this applies to humans; or to illustrate the concept of common evolutionary roots (see below).

Since we want more people to become aware of the enormous potential of fly research, we launched the “droso4schools” project which actively promotes the introduction of fruit flies as teaching tools in schools. The goal is to improve curriculum-relevant contents whilst creating memorable encounters with flies. Our evaluations clearly show that pupils receive Drosophila and fly-based micro-experiments with great enthusiasm (see our impact document; Fig.11 below).

It is for all these reasons that I developed the two lesson resources described in the following.

Fundamental strategies for our biology classes

On the droso4schools project, university students work as teaching assistants in partner schools for several months (Harbottle et al., 2016; see our film). Through this close involvement we are able to generate sample lessons where we merge our own expertise on biology topics with the professional expertise of teachers, thus incorporating appropriate styles of teaching including differentiation, as well as contents that address the curriculum and assessments.

Fig. 2 Logo of the droso4schools website

Our sample lessons form a conceptual journey through curriculum-relevant topics, told in a highly interactive way that engages the pupils. The lessons are spiced up with little activities and micro-experiments that are easy to set up and perform also by teachers. These sample lessons are made freely available for download from our figshare site. They include PowerPoint files accompanied by support materials, such as teacher notes, lesson plans, risk assessments, activity and homework sheets. Importantly, these resources are not static but regularly updated and improved, based on new ideas that arose during our school visits or other forms of feedback we receive. Notably, all contents are also provided as dedicated pages on our “droso4schools” website, which can be used for teacher preparation as well as revision or homework tasks of pupils.

So far, most of our experiences are derived from collaborations with secondary schools (Prokop, 2018c), whereas primary schools are new territory for our project. But our first school visits and evaluations were promising, and we felt it to be timely to share our resources – also hoping that members of the teaching community may send us their feedback, advice and suggestions so that we can further improve our lessons.

A KS2 lesson on life cycle

Box 2 Flow of the life cycle lesson

(0)   two weeks ahead of the lesson, get vials with fruit fly eggs (to obtain them, please contact us) so that pupils can observe them and protocol their findings on a daily basis;

Fig. 3 An animated image showing the life cycle of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as it can be used and viewed in classrooms. For details see our website.

(1)   show the three subclasses of amphibians (letting the pupils guess what they are and providing some background information), and discuss their life cycles;

(2)   look at incomplete metamorphosis of dragon- and damselflies (Odonata) and compare their life cycles to those of amphibians with tadpoles;

(3)   see a National Geographic film about mayflies (who only live one day as adults);

(4)   discuss grasshoppers/crickets (to demonstrate an example of less severe metamorphosis);

(5)   use butterfly/moth life cycles to introduce to complete metamorphosis and pupal stages;

(6)   engage in an activity where the pupils identify different insect orders and try to guess whether they have a pupal stage (accompanied by an activity sheet);

(7)   discuss the pupils’ own protocols of the fly life cycle (see Fig.10 below); show an image of a Drosophila maggot versus adult fly and ask pupils to compare them;

(8)   explain how metamorphosis works using examples from Drosophila (supported by films and graphics): newly developing legs and wings as well as transforming muscles;

(9)   show a film with mosquito larvae and let pupils guess what they are, then discuss their life cycle;

(10) lead over to mosquito-borne parasites and discuss the life cycle of the malaria parasite Plasmodium and how it causes malaria (mention the importance of prophylaxis if travelling into malaria-infested regions);

(11) show images of worm parasites, then discuss the life cycle of the dog tapeworms (vividly illustrating why pupils should wash their hands!);

(12) a potential further activity or homework task introduces pupils to the identification of insect orders using determination keys (we use the UC Berkely BioKeys website).

The flow of our life cycle lesson is summarised in Box 2, and contents are explained in the wider conceptual context on our accompanying webpage (Prokop, 2018a; see Appendix). Here I briefly discuss some innovative features of this lesson.

First, when analysing existing online life cycle resources, I mostly encountered materials with lovely drawings but very few would show the real animals. I therefore took a different approach in that my lessons make prominent use of animal photos. In the life cycle lesson these cover the four known groups of amphibians as well as most orders of insects. Many of these animals are set into context, and engaging background information is provided. We even explain how teachers can extend into an activity where children learn simple and exciting ways to use a determination key to identify animals they might find outside in their daily lives. In sum, these contents and activities clearly address items 1-4 in Box 1, whilst bringing natural history into the classroom.

Fig.4 Damselflies (left) and dragonflies (right) belong to the insect order of Odonata and are easily distinguished by their eye sizes (insets), wing shapes (see details) and wing postures in resting position (see main images). Image information: Ischnura heterosticta (inset – same species); Sympetrum flaveolum (inset  – species unknown).

Second, the use of Drosophila brings new opportunities. For example, observing the full life cycle of flies in only 10 days in the classroom is a memorable way to experience complete metamorphosis. It can even be used for experiments. For example, when comparing fly vials placed closer to a radiator with those further away, the influence of temperature on biological processes of cold-blooded animals (including insects and amphibians) can be demonstrated. Or mutant flies of different body or eye colour can be used, thus challenging the children to spot small differences (if you need suitable flies, please contact us).

Fig. 5 Comparing maggots and flies. Image sources: Sekelsky lab; Discover Life (by Malcolm Storey)

Furthermore, fly maggots are drastically different from adult flies (Fig. 5) and do not even have stumpy legs like caterpillars. This poses the obvious question of what actually happens within the pupal case. In flies this question has been answered in unprecedented detail. Building on this knowledge and supported by graphic illustrations and little films, we show how muscles of crawling maggots are rebuilt to enable walking and flying, and how legs and wings are formed anew. Notably, pupils also learn that tongue development in frogs occurs during metamorphosis in ways comparable to leg/wing development in flies.

We were surprised to find that only a few kids could identify mosquito larvae (a common and easy to spot guest in puddles and buckets in our gardens!), but many knew malaria as a mosquito-borne disease. Accordingly, pupils appreciated the life cycle of the malaria parasite Plasmodium, which starts in humans and then continues in mosquitoes. For this, I provide a step-wise animation which makes it easy to explain the enormously complex Plasmodium life cycle. The lesson leads over to parasitic worms and the example of the tapeworm life cycle is briefly discussed (Fig. 6), which tends to have a gripping “horrible history”-like effect on the pupils. Importantly, the life cycles of both parasites represent relevant examples relating to disease: Plasmodium illustrates the importance of malaria prophylaxis (for kids travelling into malaria-infested areas) and the tapeworm clearly illustrates why we should wash our hands after being outside.

Fig. 6. The dog tapeworm: an unusual but didactically valuable example of life cycle, relevant for understanding needs of daily hygiene. For details see our website.

A KS2 lesson on evolution

Box 3 Flow of the evolution lesson

(1)   discuss some aspects of fruit flies including gender differences, and the Antennapedia mutation where flies have 8 legs;

(2)   show photos of 8-leged spiders and other related arachnids including mites (dust allergy!) and ticks (lime disease, tick-borne encephalitis!); let pupils guess what they are;

(3)   show their scientific names to lead over to discussing the concept of “binominal nomenclature” (two-name naming system, such as in “Tyrannosaurus rex”);

(4)   lead over to Darwin and ideas of speciation and evolution;

(5)   discuss mutation as the key driver of change, and use albinism and the peppered moth as examples to explain natural selection;

(6)   identify Drosophila marker mutations under the microscope (Fig.7) or as a digital exercise (for advice on affordable microscopes or the digital version, please contact us);

(7)   together with the pupils, construct an invented evolutionary tree based on Drosophila mutations (Fig.8);

(8)   lead over to the human evolutionary tree to introduce the “common ancestor” concept;

(9)   point out that the common ancestor of humans and flies lived 500 million years ago, and explain commonalities between fly and human body functions to illustrate that fundamental principles of biology are ancient and have been maintained (concept of ‘deep homology’);

(10) show examples of evolutionary conservation between flies and mammals (Fig.9) including movies of fighting (aggression!) and “free-climbing” (motivation!) flies;

(11) pose the question of whether we can study ageing in a fly that only lives for 7-8 weeks; test this with an experiment racing young against old flies; data are plotted and then discussed in front of the class to show how data can be generated and interpreted.

The flow of our evolution lesson is summarised in Box 3, and most contents are explained on our accompanying webpage (Prokop, 2018a). One innovative aspect is the introduction of “binominal nomenclature“, i.e. the two-name naming system of animals, plants and microbes (such as in “Tyrannosaurus rex”). Its underlying concepts are explained with engaging and surprising examples (e.g. the “pomato). The lesson uses binominal nomenclature as a gateway to an understanding of animal classification (covering items 4 and 5 in Box 1).

Fig. 7. A simple activity identifying fly mutations under the microscope (also available as a digital exercise)

Using fruit flies offers unique and unusual opportunities for evolution lessons. For example, we use so-called “marker mutations” affecting the flies’ body colours, eye shapes & colours, wing shapes, or bristle shapes & numbers. These changes to the flies’ anatomy are easily spotted by young kids under the microscope (Fig.7; for info about cheap microscopes, please contact us, or if you prefer to perform the experiment with digital images). We then capitalise on these mutations by constructing step-by-step an invented evolutionary tree (Fig.8). This is intended to bring home to the pupils how random mutations can provide opportunities and be selected for, leading to new species over time.

Fig. 8. Using “marker mutations” of Drosophila to construct an invented evolutionary tree

The fact that fly research has helped us understand human disease (Fig. 9), is a fantastic starting point to think about the concept of “deep homology”. The idea behind this concept is that flies and humans shared a common ancestor organism about 500 million years ago. This ancestor had many aspects of biology readily established, which were so fundamental that they have been maintained in the many life forms that evolved from it.

Fig. 9 Examples of related fly and human genes which cause comparable defects when functionally affected: loss of Pax6 causes blindness/eye loss, and gain of hedgehog (Shh) causes extra digits/wings. Note that functions are so well conserved that the Pax6 gene from mouse can cure the defect of flies and bring back its eyes. Images taken with permission from: Washington et al., 2009, PLoS Biol 7, e1000247ff.; www.primehealthchannel.com/polydactyly.html; Tabata, 2001, Nat Rev Genet 2, 620ff.   

We capitalise on the concept of deep homology by finishing up with a simple, yet highly memorable experiment. Pupils are asked whether they would win a race against their grandparents, to then discuss what happens to our bodies during ageing (item 5 in Box 1). Pupils then vote as to whether they think that a fly life of 7-8 weeks is long enough to show symptoms of ageing – i.e. whether we can study ageing in flies. We take this to the test in that pupils perform a race experiment: flies have the tendency to walk upwards in their vials; so pupils bang them down and measure the time at which the first young and the first old fly arrive at the top (referred to as the “climbing assay”). Data are collected across the class and plotted live in front of their eyes. Pupils quickly see that young flies are faster, thus discovering the answer to the question of this experiment. We discuss the obtained “data clouds” as being typical of biological experiments; pupils are then usually able to suggest that means/averages are a way to describe these data and turn them into bar graphs.

Epilogue: How well do these lessons and their objectives work in practice?

For several years, we have taught various parts of these lessons in higher classes of primary schools and lower classes of secondary schools. On 17 October 2018 we were invited by St. John’s RC Primary School in Manchester to teach both lessons in parallel in two consecutive sessions: first to two year 5 classes (aged 9-10), then to two year 6 classes (aged 10-11). A team of four took on the task (Fig. 10), for which we brought 25 low-cost stereomicroscopes (for looking at mutants), flies and empty vials (for the climbing assay), as well as the various activity and evaluation sheets. Ahead of the event, teachers had watched our 5 minute educational movie together with the pupils, to introduce them to Drosophila as a laboratory model, and had observed vials with fly eggs for two weeks to protocol the fly life cycle (Fig. 10).

Fig. 10 Left: The team visiting St. John’s RC Primary: Andreas Prokop, Sanjai Patel, Megan Chastney, Ben Chapman. Right: Class display illustrating engagement with the fly vials provided 2 weeks ahead of the event.

The flow of lessons during this first comprehensive trial worked in a highly interactive manner, with pupils staying alert. The evaluation forms were filled in with the help of teachers on the following day and turned out to be very encouraging (Fig. 11; Box 4). Most pupils seem to have enjoyed the event and felt they had learned new facts about animals, life cycle and evolution – suggesting that our ideas are in principle working and can reach year 5 and year 6 pupils. This said, the level and amount of selected contents was intended to be demanding, and proper implementation for routine use in schools would require suitable differentiation strategies to reach children of varying abilities. Furthermore, the evaluation only reflects what the pupils felt; it would require more detailed studies to assess whether this correlates with true learning, and follow-ups would be needed to investigate long-term retention.

Fig. 11 Evaluation of the event on 17 Oct 2018  teaching the Life Cycle and Evolution lessons to Y5 and Y6 classes at St. John’s RC Primary School in Manchester. The complete spread sheet can be downloaded here.

To facilitate retention, we designed further strategies and resources. Thus, children were given three activity sheets (LINK1, LINK2) designed to be filled in with the teachers in school or as a homework task (potentially engaging further family members!): (1) an aide-mémoire which was filled in during the lesson and displays different insect orders and whether they have a pupal stage; (2) a sheet explaining the UC Berkeley BioKeys activity; (3) a crossword puzzle as an incentive to look at the accompanying website (Prokop, 2018a) and our 2nd educational movie. However, to achieve that these resources serve their intended purpose of consolidating knowledge, we are aware that schools are busy and that we need to develop clever strategies of incentivisation and closely collaborate with teachers to make sure that these resources are being capitalised on.

Finally, regarding the aims of our droso4school initiative, most pupils found that flies and the fly experiments were great fun and exciting (Fig. 11, Box 4), suggesting that flies seem to work as suitable teaching tools also in primary schools. For the majority of pupils it was new that fruit flies were used in research, and disagreeing students might have known from hearing about our previous events at the same school. But from their comments we take the careful hope that many of these kids will remember Drosophila in the future, and that the experiences of this extracurricular day will make them respond with greater attention and curiosity when hearing about fruit fly research from the media or elsewhere.

To extend this outcome beyond Manchester, we made all our teaching resources public and are working hard to spread their active use within teacher and researcher communities; comments that we received on other lesson resources from across the world show that this is in principle possible (see our impact document). However, the impact could be even greater if examination and education boards incorporated Drosophila into the national curriculum – and this is what we are aiming to achieve (see also Prokop, 2018c)!

Box 4. Some pupils’ comments

  • It was one of my best days ever (Y5)
  • The lesson was amazing, most of it I didn’t even know about (Y6)
  • This lesson was very cool and interesting. I might even go to Manchester University (Y6)
  • I could understand everything. I loved the experiments the best (Y6)
  • The lesson was very fun and I hope we have more amazing experiences like that again (Y6)
  • The lesson was exciting because of the fruit flies (Y5)
  • I really enjoyed looking at fruit flies through a microscope (Y5)
  • I think we should do more work on fruit flies, it’s very interesting (Y5)
  • Using fruit flies made the lesson so much more fun and interesting (Y5)
  • Using the fruit flies made the lessons exciting. It was amazing. It made me have a better understanding about them and the stages they go through (Y6)
  • I understand much better how evolution works (Y5)
  • I didn’t know a lot about evolution but now I do (Y6)
  • I know much more about evolution and our distant relatives (Y5)
  • At first I didn’t know about how evolution works but now I do (Y6)
  • Evolution can help animals adapt to new habitats or to help them to have new advantages and have new abilities (Y6)
  • I loved learning about different creatures and different insects (Y5)
  • Lots of interesting facts about many different animals I didn’t even know existed (Y5)
About the author: Andreas Prokop is Professor of Neurobiology at The University of Manchester. As academic head of the ‘Manchester Fly Facility’ and together with the facility’s manager Sanjai Patel, he drives the “Manchester Fly Facility” and ‘droso4schools‘ initiatives mentioned in this blog post.

References

Archer, L., DeWitt, J., Osborne, J., Dillon, J., Willis, B., Wong, B. (2012). Science Aspirations, Capital, and Family Habitus:How Families Shape Children’s Engagement and Identification With Science. American Educational Research Journal 49, 881-908 — [LINK]

Croll, P. (2008). Occupational choice, socio‐economic status and educational attainment: a study of the occupational choices and destinations of young people in the British Household Panel Survey. Research Papers in Education 23, 243-268 — [LINK]

Harbottle, J., Strangward, P., Alnuamaani, C., Lawes, S., Patel, S., Prokop, A. (2016). Making research fly in schools: Drosophila as a powerful modern tool for teaching Biology. School Science Review 97, 19-23 — [LINK]

Maltese, A. V., Tai, R. H. (2011). Pipeline persistence: Examining the association of educational experiences with earned degrees in STEM among U.S. students. Science Education 95, 877-907 — [LINK]

Manchester Fly Facility (2015). droso4schools: Online resources for school lessons using the fuit fly Drosophila — [LINK]

Prokop, A. (2016). Fruit flies in biological research. Biological Sciences Review 28, 10-14 — [LINK]

Prokop, A. (2018a). LESSON 6 – Life cycles. Blog post in “droso4schools” — [LINK]

Prokop, A. (2018b). Why funding fruit fly research is important for the biomedical sciences. Open Access Govern 20, 198-201 — [LINK]

Prokop, A. (2018c). How to communicate basic research in schools – a case study using Drosophila. Blog post in “PLOS | BLOGS” — [LINK]

Appendix 1

Information on the accompanying website covers all of the contents of the life cycle lesson and most of the evolution lesson. Some information goes beyond these contents to provide a wider context; it comprises the following topics:

  • What role do sexual versus asexual modes of reproduction play in plants and animals. The horticultural practice of grafting is also explained in this context.
  • How do different plant or animal species distribute gender? For example, hermaphroditic snails or earthworms in our garden are male and female at the same time, or clown fish can change gender from male to female.
  • How does the reproduction of plants and animals compare to that of bacteria or baker’s yeast?
  • How do life cycles link to evolution? In this context, the example of the peppered moth is explained and the relevant topic of bacterial resistance to antibiotics is explained.
  • What is development and how does it relate to the topic of reproduction and life cycle?
  • The information about these five insect orders also covers typical features of their aquatic larvae typically occurring in our ponds or rivers (Fig. 5). This might be helpful for an outside activity.

Fig. A1 Embryonic and juvenile development. For further details see our website.

 

Matthew Cobb: What makes great biology?

This blog about a plenary talk given by Prof. Matthew Cobb (The University of Manchester) at the School of Biological Sciences symposium on Friday, 12 January 2018 was first published on The Node on 19 Jan 2018 [LINK]

 

Matthew Cobb is an inspiring advocate and communicator of science, in particular of biology. This is clearly reflected in his books and articles about the history of biology (and beyond), and his various radio programmes reflecting on past and contemporary science topics. Recent highlights are his book “Life’s Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code” (shortlisted for the 2015 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books) as well as his BBC Radio programmes “Editing Life” (a well-balanced analysis of the opportunities and risks of the newly emerging CRISPR gene editing techniques) and ”Sydney Brenner: A Revolutionary Biologist“ (about the life of this outstanding scientist).

As a result of working on two BBC radio programmes and a project on scientific collaboration (supported by a Sydney Brenner Research Scholarship from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory), Matthew has been reflecting on what are the magic ingredients that produce great biology. The talk he presented at Manchester’s School of Biological Sciences Symposium on 12 January 2018 (see re-recording of this entire talk here), was an inspiring and enlightening summary of the key ideas extracted from this endeavour.

In his talk, Matthew first gave a definition of “great biology” which he proposes as “influencing our thinking about life, from nucleic acids to ecosystems, in ways that are long-lasting and opening up new perspectives”; he pointed out that these traits are “not necessarily associated with large grant funding, publication in ‘high-ranking’ journals or practical or therapeutic implications”. He then moved on to explain what he thinks the five magic ingredients are that promote great biology, illustrating each point with enlightening examples of scientists and anecdotes from the biology’s past (one of them about amateur scientists!) – always with a view to current practice, and providing inspirational advice for the future. Certainly, I do not want to spoil the watching of Matthew’s talk by giving away the concrete examples, but shall briefly discuss the fundamental ingredients that Matthew highlighted, mixed in with some of my own thoughts.

The first advice is to be early in the game. To be at the forefront of new developments or even being a trend setter requires vision, meaning the ability to recognise today what will be important tomorrow, but also living with the right mind at the right time. Certainly, the chances of being in the early game is helped by keeping an open mind for the bigger picture and unanswered questions, rather than getting lost in detail. And there are measures that can be taken to this end. For example “The encyclopaedia of ignorance – life sciences”, edited by R. Duncan and M. Weston-Smith in 1977/78, was an inspiring attempt to make renowned scientists of the time think aloud about the future of the various life science disciplines; and I could imagine that this was a great catalyser for curious readers to awaken their pioneer spirits. Another important means to foster a culture that honours forward-looking thinking, is to free time for, and take an interest in, true dialogue and discussion. For this, we also need to generate the right environment and opportunities, such as to ensure that all new buildings have informal social spaces where people can meet and discuss. But also, when reviewing manuscripts, we need to be open to new ideas so that they can develop – rather than brush them away with a tunnel view. In a recent case of a fellowship application I experienced, ten lay reviewers gave maximum marks; in contrast, three specialist reviewers rated the application as being mere average, mostly based on technical detail and blind to the concepts and ideas behind that application and its potential to develop great science. It is the latter that we all need to recognise and foster.

The second advice is to think and plan long-term. Key to this strategy is the art of long-term objective setting guided by fundamental questions and their break-down into medium and short-term goals that can be dealt with at a time. Again, this is not made easy in the current science and science funding landscape, but all arguments are in favour of long-term developments. The “skimming-the-cream-and-moving-on” mentality might be good for the careers of individual scientists, but perhaps not so good for the actual science. Similar conclusions are drawn by the article “How should novelty be valued in science?” published by B. A. Cohen in Elife last year. Cohen’s analysis of arguments from the philosophy of science (how reliable knowledge is generated) and from the sociology of science (how science communities work most efficiently) clearly dismantle the excessive demand for novel mechanisms (as opposed to gradual development of concepts) that governs contemporary science funding and publishing policies. This trend has become a significant inhibitor of high quality science, and the alarming increase in reports about non-reproducibility of published results is a logic consequence of these developments, and poses a risk to the future of science.

The third advice is to choose and/or develop the right tools. Apart from the examples Matthew mentioned in his talk, I can mainly speak for the biomedical sciences; my personal experiences lie with Developmental Biology and Drosophila research within, both of which are under threat by the growing emphasis on translational (i.e. clinical) research. Many politicians and funders seem to focus increasingly on the final steps of the discovery pipeline, fixing their gaze on expected short-term returns. They overlook, and often don’t understand, that longer-term basic research (which is typically not performed on humans but on animal model organisms as the more versatile “tools”) generates the creative pool of ideas that will feed the bench-to-bedside pipeline in the future. But even within fundamental research, “tool choice” has shifted away from the use of genetic invertebrate model organisms, such as C. elegans or Drosophila, to the use of mouse models. This development fails to recognise that research concerning evolutionary conserved processes and mechanisms is done far more productively and economically in the smaller model organisms; as Hugo Bellen once stated [LINK]: “You get 10 times more biology for a dollar invested in flies than you get in mice”. I therefore believe that we would see greater biology if grant panels looked more critically at the justifications for the model organisms that are being proposed for projects – and that such a practice would free up funds for a greater variety of science.

The fourth advice is to build good teams. Matthew highlighted three factors. Ideally have at least one person with great vision in your team that has the genius to drive the conceptual ideas behind the work. Be complementary in your expertises. But, most importantly, foster a productive culture of discussion: be prepared to play around with ideas even if they appear mad at first sight; and enjoy and capitalise on friction coming from different opinions and opposing thoughts, so that the best ideas can emerge and be developed into scientific experiments.

The fifth ingredient, least accessible to advice, is luck! We all know this component as a potential maker and breaker of careers. This said, bad luck certainly breaks those who either lack the vision or disregard the above advice. However, the good scientists will be prepared: either by taking the long view that provides flexibility for alternative strategies and approaches, or by using failure as an opportunity to rethink and take new directions – perhaps providing a new chance to be early in the game! As Napoleon supposedly said: “I believe in luck, and the wise man neglects nothing which contributes to his destiny”.

But even if we are eager to follow this advice, the circumstances of the current science landscape might not be in support of great biology. Harmful metrics, counterproductive expectations, bureaucracy, a shift in public opinion, and harmful publishing policies “bully us into bad science” and promote self-focussed communities and mechanisms that inhibit true progress and passion for science. Some examples were given above and many more can be found in other publications (e.g. Lawrence; Cohen; Young; Smaldino; Martínez-Arias; Nerlich). But, as I argued in a recent blog, we must organise ourselves and engage as a community in dialogue with each other, clinicians, policy makers, funders and publishers – all with a view to improving the biology we do. For such dialogue, we need arguments and elevator pitches that are engaging and convincing. To this end, Matthew’s talk is a rich resource of ideas and well thought-out arguments that we all should listen to and take on board.

Andreas Prokop

Watch his talk: