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My genus is Drosophila, and I'm an alcoholic

Erin Podolak

UCSF researchers discover that Drosophila experience alcohol addiction with symptoms similar to humans.

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Fruit flies don’t just get drunk; they become addicts, according to a new study from the Heberlein laboratory at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). The study indicates that fruit flies experience alcohol addiction with symptoms similar to those experienced by humans. Biochemist Ulrike Heberlein of UCSF has conducted several studies on the effects of alcohol on Drosophila, but this new research looks at the voluntary consumption of alcohol in fruit flies.

UCSF researchers have discovered behaviors similar to human alcohol addition in fruit flies. Source: Georgia Tech

In May 2009, Heberlein’s team published a paper that identified a gene in Drosophila, appropriately named happyhour, which controls the insects’ resistance to alcohol’s sedative effects. Continuing her research, Heberlein began investigating if fruit flies would consume alcohol at will.

“The flies choose to consume alcohol to intoxicating levels,” said Heberlein in a press release. “They will do so even if alcohol is made unpalatable, and they relapse to drinking high levels of alcohol after being deprived of it.”

Heberlein’s team was surprised to discover alcohol addiction behaviors in fruit flies because such behaviors had been thought to be essentially a human condition.

Drosophila chose to consume food containing ethanol over regular food, and this preference increased over time, according to Heberlein. The researchers observed that the fruit flies were attracted to the smell but not the taste of the food. The flies repeatedly consumed the ethanol-laced food to intoxicating levels.

“Previously, we studied simple behaviors, such as intoxication and development of tolerance” said Heberlein. “This work opens the door for us to study much more complex alcohol-related behaviors, such as: use despite adverse consequences and relapse.”

“Preferential ethanol consumption in Drosphila models features of addiction,” was published online on Dec. 10 at Current Biology.