Want to understand better how human traits are passed on? Just study the fruit fly.

Getting fruit flies drunk might sound silly, but it's an important part of Dr. Trudy Mackay's research.

Enter Mackay's lab at NC State University, and you'll find multiple columns stretching from floor to ceiling with alcohol vapor running through them. If you look real close, you'll see the fruit flies in these "inebriometers" partying hard — getting hyperactive, falling all over the place, and then eventually just passing out drunk.

The thing is, that's exactly how a human would react to alcohol. So does this make fruit flies more human? Obviously not. But it does illustrate one of the many traits and characteristics that we have in common with the humble (and occasionally tipsy) fruit fly.


When Mackay read a study in 2000 that said 70-75% of human genes have equivalents in the fruit fly, she knew there was more to be learned about humans.

In fact, the research she gathers from fruit flies can usually translate to humans. And in some cases, what'll make a fruit fly sick will make a human sick as well — meaning we can potentially learn a lot about serious diseases from observing fruit flies.

Dr. Trudy Mackay. All screenshots via NC State/YouTube.

In the case of the alcohol sensitivity, Mackay and her team identified a gene in the flies called "malic enzyme" that was strongly affected by the alcohol. Then when they surveyed humans on their drinking habits, they found that those who consume alcohol had similar results in the same corresponding gene. It's a huge step in understanding how alcohol affects us, but what's key is finding other variants like malic enzyme and observing how they interact with each other.

"This is where we’re going in the future," adds Mackay. "What we would like to know is how the variants combine together to affect risk."

So why test fruit flies in the lab and not, you know, a lab rat?

"They're actually an odd but very good model of human complex traits," Mackay says. "In fact, many of the pathways that we know are involved in cancer, heart disease, other human complex diseases actually have names from flies — where they were first discovered."

Mackay also notes that there are a couple of advantages to using the flies instead of the more common lab mammals. "One is their very short lifespan," she says. Fruit flies don't live all that long, so it's easier to see how the traits they observe are passed from one generation to the next. It also makes it easier to study just that — lifespan.

"The other is that we have community resources that have been built up over many, many decades," adds Mackay. "A whole host of technological advances that we can use to study traits that are relevant to human health."

In fact, one of the most important resources around is one that she created. The Drosophila Genetic Reference Panel (DGRP), a collection of 200 different genetic fruit fly lines, allows other scientists to conduct their own research and compare their trait results with the catalog Mackay has provided. That helped earn Mackay the esteemed Wolf Prize in Agriculture, an award that's known to be an indicator of Nobel Prize winners.

There's still a lot of work left to be done, but that only pushes Mackay even more.

Yes, it's pretty awesome that we have a lot in common with fruit flies. But in the grand scheme of things, it's about so much more than that. "What I think is most important are the general principles of complex trait inheritance that we’ve discovered that I very much think is applied to the same general principles in humans," Mackay notes.

That's why Mackay continues to apply her research to understanding a number of different causes — whether it's glaucoma, aggression, or stress resistance in humans. At the end of the day, it's all about gathering as much information as possible to put the pieces together.

"You can think of it as, the studies we've done up to now is giving us a parts list," Mackay says. "And what we need to do is figure out how those parts go together."

It's a long (and unpredictable) road ahead, but it's one that Mackay would gladly go down anytime. When asked about what inspires her to keep pushing the field forward, Mackay didn't even hesitate.

"The same as any scientist," she says. "Curiosity about the natural world."

Feeling curious yourself? Check out the video below to learn more about Dr. Trudy Mackay's groundbreaking work:

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NC State

Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

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Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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Not everyone thinks that women are tomatoes. This year's CMA Awards celebrated women, and Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles saw the opportunity to bring awareness to this issue and "inspire conversation about country music's need to play more women artists on radio and play listings," as Nettles put it on her Instagram. She did it in a uniquely feminine way – by making a fashion statement that also made a statement-statement.

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