Studying Fruit Flies to Understand ALS

Turning a key in a lock, one of many simple tasks someone with ALS has difficulty with. [Photo: "Under lock and key" by Janet Ramsden (Unedited). License: CC BY 2.0]

Turning a key in a lock, one of many simple tasks someone with ALS has difficulty with.
[Photo: “Under lock and key” by Janet Ramsden (Unedited). License: CC BY 2.0]

In Brief:

  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects motor neurons.
  • Symptoms: increasing weakness in one limb, difficulty walking, clumsiness of the hands, light twitching, impaired speech, and difficulty swallowing, eventual paralysis.
  • Scientists studying fruit flies have discovered how genetic mutations disrupt functions in neurons and lead to neurodegenerative diseases, such as ALS.
  • The use of the fruit fly is still in early stages, but this model has potential to aid in the discovery of treatments or even a cure for those with ALS.

The little girls adored their father. One day, during an intense game of “monkey in the middle,” they noticed something was very different about the way Daddy played. He was slower and weaker in his arms; just tossing the ball seemed to take every bit of strength he had. Eventually, the doctor diagnosed their strong and active daddy with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, which affects people between the ages of 40 and 75, and is more common in men than in women. (“Diseases and Conditions. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis,” 2014).


In patients with ALS these motor neurons die, causing loss of muscle control. [Image: “Relation between sensory, relay, & motor neurons” by Ruth Lawson (Unedited). License: CC BY 3.0]

ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord (“What is ALS?,” 2010). When motor neurons die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost, which explained Daddy’s weakness in his game of “monkey in the middle.” Though the true cause of ALS is still unclear, there are identifiable symptoms of the disease. In the early stages, the symptoms of ALS include: increasing weakness in one limb, difficulty walking, clumsiness of the hands, light twitching, impaired speech, and difficulty swallowing – all symptoms Mommy had been noticing in Daddy. As the disease progresses, the family will watch as his weakness increases until eventually he becomes paralyzed (“Understanding ALS,” 2014).

The tiny Drosophila melanogaster, more commonly known as the fruit fly, could hold the answers to many of the mysteries surrounding ALS (“ALS Facts and Statistics,” 2014). Scientists are currently studying genes that are believed to play a role in the disease in hopes that they can develop targeted gene therapies. This research is being performed on fruit flies, an organism that has proven to be valuable in finding genes and molecular pathways integral in several neurological diseases (“ALS Facts and Statistics”, 2013). One study in fruit flies revealed a method of reducing the toxicity associated with a key ALS protein, a strategy to slow the loss of neuron function. Also studying the fruit fly, scientists at Johns Hopkins have discovered new ways that genetic mutations can disrupt functions in neurons and lead to neurodegenerative diseases, such as ALS, (Johns Hopkins Medicine, 2013). According to Nancy Bonini, a biology professor in the School of Arts & Sciences, “These model systems are very fast and simpler than mammalian models. They allow us to focus on conserved pathways, and can be remarkably powerful for giving us insight into pathways involved in disease” (“ALS Facts and Statistics”, 2013).

Works Cited

This article was written by cYw19. As always, before leaving a response to this article please view our Rules of Conduct. Thanks! -cYw Editorial Staff

[Graphic by Staff Illustrator]

[Graphic by Staff Illustrator]


Author: cYw19

Hello cYw visitors! I am a sophomore in high school and this is my first year being a part of curiousYOUNGwriters.  It has been a great experience so far, as I have learned so much about topics I never even knew existed prior to this experience.  The cYw blog allowed me to use my prior knowledge on good writing skills and also to learn about many new topics in science today.  When I am older, I aspire to be a pediatric oncologist, so this experience has allowed me to expand my knowledge in current medical research, a field I aspire to become an expert in.  I have always had a passion for science, and curiousYOUNGwriter has allowed me to express this passion through wonderful articles about various topics in current science research.  Aside from science, I am a competitive gymnast, high school cheerleader, dancer, musician, and track runner.  I hope you enjoy our articles and find them both captivating and educational!

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  1. Avatar

    This was a fascinating read, and was a nice introduction to ALS. I think that genetic engineering is a very promising field, and I enjoyed learning about a specific application of this field to help understand ALS.

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  2. Avatar

    What an interesting topic! Many animals have been used to discover various cures for diseases but this is the first time I’ve heard about them being used for neurodegenerative diseases.

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  3. Avatar

    I just want to thank you for doing this post. My grandmother had ALS. Since I was very young when she contracted the disease I never had a chance to get to know her very well. I am very excited for this new research into a disease, and I hope that a cure will be developed very soon!

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    This was a very well written post, as well as a fascinating topic. I have heard of other model organisms such as Caenorhabditis elegans, but your article helped me understand the purpose of model organisms, and that Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly, could lead to innovations and discoveries in diseases such as ALS. Thank you!

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    This article was a great aid in helping me learn about ALS and what they are doing to cure it in a short simple way. This showed me that huge steps toward solving the disease are being made by scientists through the use of a little bug. It’s fascinating and really broadens the ideas through that one could do so many things with such a small animal. I was wondering how they are able to give the fruit flies the disease? Would it be the same disease or would it be a little different.

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      A great and efficient article that shows us how ALS can damage the people’s daily lives through simple activities such as just playing a game. It allowed us to see that ALS had made the people to lose the flexibility, such as it’s difficult for them to walk, to chew, and many other simple activities relating with the muscles. And your demonstration of the strategies that scientists are using for solving ALS clearly reflected some of the potential causes of ALS. You had explained that the fruit flies were the very suitable experimenting materials, whereas they had the very simple genetic structure that are much easier than the human’s. Also, your diagram had showed us how the integrated materials, or drugs had influenced the fruit flies and made them have the symptoms of ALS.

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    This was a very interesting post! It’s surprising to hear how little scientists actually know about ALS, however it is comforting to hear that we are expanding our knowledge on this disease. The topic of genetic mutation is very interesting-as well as important. I would be very interested in finding out exactly how the scientists working on this trial were able to genetically engineer a fly that mimicked a human with ALS. This disease is very deadly and affects many, but it is relieving to know that new breakthroughs are occurring every day in the biomedical field.

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    The article really helped me fully understand ALS. Before looking at this article and examining it, I knew nothing about ALS and what it even was. After reading this article, I know symptoms of ALS, what ALS stands for, and how fruit flies help the cause for ALS. Fruit flies are an example of how animals can help in bio medical research on diseases and disorders. It’s truly amazing how such a little organism can affect a disease in a positive way.

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