Researchers mapped the signaling processes used by Insulin in Fruit flies.

Fruit flies may be small, but the genetic secrets they can unlock for humans are many. In the current issue of the journal Development, Michigan State University researchers mapped the signaling processes used by insulin in fruit flies.

The significance of the discovery in the tiny Drosophila melanogaster, which have been called “Tiny people with wings, genetically speaking,” sheds light on how these processes may be altered by diabetes in humans. Insulin signaling is an important process for these creatures; past studies have proven that the natural hormone insulin controls growth and development of the fly.

Fruit flies raised on a high-sugar diet consisting solely of bananas can actually develop a diabetic-like state, with metabolic dysfunction similar to humans, said David Arnosti, MSU biochemistry professor, director of MSU’s Gene Expression in Development and Disease Initiative and the study’s senior author. As an extension of these past findings, Yiliang Wei, a graduate student in Arnosti’s lab and study co-author, focused on the insulin receptor protein, which binds to insulin and regulates its effects.

Little was known about how levels of this protein were regulated before the researchers mapped its controlling circuits. One surprising finding was the large number of genetic switches controlling expression of the receptor, which had been previously assumed to possess rather simple regulation. The structure and function of this circuitry is likely to have been sculpted by evolutionary selection.

The researchers predict that the human gene will be similarly regulated, which could open a new chapter in diabetes research to find ways to modulate insulin signaling through control of the receptor, Arnosti said. The tiny fruit fly has once again proven itself as an effective model organism and given the team solid ground on which to move forward.

Press release: Diabetic fruit flies may unlock secrets in humans