Collaborative Classwork Reveals 100-Year-Old Secret in Fruit Flies


Dr. Eric Spana. Photo by Stephen Schramm.

Drosophila, the fruit fly, has been a staple of undergraduate education in Biology for a long time. More and more, however, undergraduates are becoming assets in Drosophila research. One example: Duke Biology’s Eric Spana and a group of six undergrads have uncovered the genetic basis of a mutation known for over 100 years: Drosophila’s speck phenotype.

In 1910, Thomas Hunt Morgan identified speck flies, characterized by their slightly darker body and by a little dark spot at the hinge of their wings. Though speck has been a useful tool for genetic research since the early 20th century, scientists still didn’t know which gene was responsible for this peculiar color pattern. Now, thanks to Spana and his students, this 100-year-old secret was revealed: speck is codified by the AANAT1 gene. The paper describing their efforts and results was published in G3: Genes, Genome, Genetics in September 2020.

The students who helped Spana in his discovery had no prior knowledge of Drosophila genetics. Through their class project and following independent research, these students learned how science works from the ground up – developing their expertise in science history, literature search, genetics, molecular biology, microscopy, scientific reasoning and writing.

Working alongside Spana also made some of these students fall in love with the process of research.

By working on real world problems, students learn a hands-on approach to science. At the same time, they contribute to the advancement of scientific fields and acquire skills that span far more than biology.

For Spana, this success story highlights the immense discovery potential that lies within undergraduate classrooms.

“Students are great at solving problems,” he said. “Give them problems worth solving!”

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Collaborative Classwork Reveals 100-Year-Old Secret in Fruit Flies

CITATION: Spana, E. P., Abrams, A. B., Ellis, K. T., Klein, J. C., Ruderman, B. T., Shi, A. H., Zhu, D., Stewart, A., May, S., G3: GENES, GENOMES, GENETICS September 1, 2020 vol. 10 no. 9 3387-3398; https://doi.org/10.1534/g3.120.401470