It is September, and I know you’re thinking what I’m thinking. That’s right. Darn it, I’m going to miss my fruit flies.
I was shopping online for a kicky djellaba to hide the hummus stains on my jeggings when it occurred to me: In mere months, my fruit fly collection will have been for naught! I rushed to the Waverly Farmer’s Market and picked up the worst-looking nectarine I could find. “Stippany, how much is this nectarine?” I asked the hunky teen manning the stone fruit. “And what kind of a name is Stippany?”
Stippany stoically informed me that since I retrieved the nectarine from the garbage, it was complementary and stop stealing the orchard’s garbage and you gave me the name Stippany, I’m not even sure it’s a name. This outburst took me aback. I pulled the duvet cover I was wearing as a dress more tightly around my shoulders, closed my eyes and took three deep cleansing breaths before speaking again.
“Simmer down, Stippany, and thanks for the nectarine. You’re helping to protect a genetic legacy greater than yourself. Did you know that scientists mapped out the entire fruit fly genome in the year 2000?” When I opened my eyes Stippany was gone, and so were the rest of the stone fruits in cardboard boxes, the overflowing garbage cans, the market attendees pawing at samples of tomatoes with names like Doord’s Pinkish Gray, Mister Flimsy, and Stippany Triumph. So that’s where his name came from, I marveled. I also marveled at having found myself on the other side of the market in the line for biscuit sandwiches—Oho! Once again I talkwalked! The equivalent of sleepwalking, but instead of walking while sleeping one walks while talking. You have probably talkwalked at some point in your life, but I bet you never knew about it until now.
Drosophila melanogaster, or the common fruit fly, is an adorable kitchen companion available to us in the warmer months as we leave more fruit out on the counter so it looks as if we eat more fruit than we actually do. While we are carrying out our charade of health and wellness, eating gelato straight from the container, fruit flies lay eggs in the crevices of ripeness as their method of notifying you that you should eat more fruit containing fly larvae. Without D. melanogaster, how would we know which spots on the countertop or sink needed more attention? Thanks for indicating the precise location of that wee glob of mango I missed on my last pass with the sponge, friends! My apologies for ruining your miniature tropical vacation.
Fruit flies are themselves a type of vacation, or release from the constraints of modern sanitation, and by sanitation I mean sanity. Riding into our homes on the crevices of fresh produce, laying hundreds of eggs a day, able to reach adulthood in a single week, surviving on dry old potatoes or drain slime, D. melanogaster presents us with an opportunity to lose our minds against a worthy foe. Among that which is truly mundane, there are few things more electrifying than the moment one nudges an overripe banana, causing a dark and tiny swarm to suddenly manifest inches from one’s face. Congratulations, the swarm seems to say. You have not one or two fruit flies, no, you have every single fruit fly there ever was and ever will be.
As you gird yourself to engage this inscrutable nemesis, drawing the duvet you are wearing as a dress more tightly around your shoulders as you do so, recall the words of Sun Tzu: “To know your Enemy, you must become your Enemy.” Put another way by Walt Kelly’s Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” On the battlefield that is genetic research, no other organism has served as lengthy and vital a tour in the service of humankind as D. melanogaster. It is through research on the common fruit fly that science unlocked understanding of hereditary traits, a concept that seems as rudimentary as suggesting water is comprised of oxygen and hydrogen. At present, one can sift through the entire genome of the common fruit fly on FlyBase, or perhaps visit Homophila to search D. melanogaster’s genetic map for human disease gene analogs.
It may be easy for us to look down on fruit flies because they do not need as much arch support or bear hugs as we do, and it may not be easy to realize that we share 75 percent of our genetic disease sequences with a creature that can be fooled by a jar with a little bit of apple cider vinegar on the bottom and saran wrap over top, just make a hole, seal with an elastic band. Can you imagine what the Zappos website looks like through one of the most complex eyes in the insect kingdom, how many knee-high riding boots might appear to be on sale?
When I arrived home from the Waverly Farmer’s Market, my boyfriend Marmantha was of course amazed by the World’s Most Repellent Nectarine, and promptly threw it away. I saluted the rubbish bin, shedding a single tear onto my orthopedic sandals. Despite the fact that the fruit flies in my kitchen are not going to be the exact same ones helping to solve the maddening genetic riddles behind cancer or Parkinson’s disease, for a brief time during the summer months (the fly equivalent to a century of lab work), we shared something special.