The Art of Breeding Insects

Fruit flies have been bred in captivity for over a century. Thomas Hunt Morgan found the Drosophila, white eye mutant in 1910 (wild type fruit flies have red eyes) and settled on the Fruit Fly, Drosophila melanogaster, as model organism for genetic studies. With a life cycle only 2 weeks from egg to adult 26 genetic crosses can be made in a single year. Thus, genetic experiments can proceed 26 times faster than in a model animal that has only 1 generation per year. Drosophila are easy to rear, genetic mutations can be induced and populations can be selected to adapt to a wide range of conditions.

Artist Andy Gracie has adapted the techniques of T.H. Morgan for his latest art project. Gracie currently has an exhibit touring in Britain that explores breeding fruit flies to adapt to conditions on Titan, the largest moon of the planet Saturn. Gracie has been exposing Fruit Flies to Titan-like conditions for short periods to produce a strain called, “Drosophila titanus”. Titan is the most “Earth-like” body in the solar system. Could life on earth colonize Titan? What adaptations would earth life forms need to make?

The idea is compelling. The selection process is open to critique. Gracie practices artistic license in his selection experiments as he explains in an interveiw with IO9 (We come from the future.)

IO9 (Jessica Griggs): Has your insistence on scientific rigour been frustrating as an artist?

Gracie: Yes! We artists are used to having a large degree of freedom for our thought processes. When doing the prototype for this project, I allowed myself a freer reign, but I plan to tighten it when I start the real thing. For example, the rain on Titan is liquid methane but it is really hard to use liquid methane in a homemade lab environment so I used its chemical cousin, vodka, instead. I quite like the humour and metaphor behind using vodka but I’m not going to allow myself to do that next time as there is no point in testing fruit flies’ tolerance to vodka if I am breeding them for an environment where there is no vodka!

Titan is currently -190 degrees. It would be difficult to breed fruit flies that could tolearte temperatures that low. However, Gracie is thinking far ahead. 3-4 billion years from now, the Sun may expand so much that earth would be uninhabitable but Titan would be warm. This is definitely a long term project.

Fruit Flies Like an Apple! Fruit Flies Like a Rocket?

About jjneal

Jonathan Neal is an Associate Professor of Entomology at Purdue University and author of the textbook, Living With Insects (2010). This blog is a forum to communicate about the intersection of insects with people and policy. This is a personal blog. The opinions and materials posted here are those of the author and are in no way connected with those of my employer.
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