Why a Fly?

College of Arts & Sciences

The genome of a fruit fly is strikingly similar to that of a human — so much so that scientists have been studying these tiny insects for over 100 years, in search of treatments for diseases like spinal muscular atrophy and neurological disorders. UNC geneticist Bob Duronio is one of those scientists.
(photo by Alyssa LaFaro)It begins with curiosity. Curiosity about a process. And then a question about that process. And then a hypothesis that will lead to an experiment that will provide results and data to interpret. What I love about this process is that my hypotheses are often wrong. And that’s really exciting — because no human being is smart enough to understand biology at a level of molecular detail where their hypotheses are always right.”
-Bob Duronio, director of the Integrative Program for Biological and Genome Sciences
Robin Armstrong adjusts the focus on her dissecting microscope. Iridescent ovals float in the ether, clumped together, stark against a black backdrop. They look like the little, individual fibers that comprise the flesh of a grapefruit — long and plump and juicy. Though this grape-shaped bunch is far from produce, it’s fitting that they belong to a fruit fly. Armstrong is examining its ovaries.
“These giant cells down here are nurse cells,” she says, motioning to the shimmery blob she just removed from her specimen with tiny forceps. She points to a gap. “And that’s where the developing egg cell is. This is my favorite stage of fruit fly reproduction — there is some pretty cool biology that happens here.” Armstrong, a PhD candidate in the UNC Curriculum for Genetics and Molecular Biology, studies fruit flies in the Duronio lab to uncover how DNA replicates inside cells.
The intricate, specialized processes of DNA — things like replication and repair and segregation — work, essentially, the same way between fruit flies and humans …

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