Evolutionary Geneticist: Fruit flies treat babies with alcohol

March 6, 2013

Todd SchlenkeA year ago, Todd Schlenke, an evolutionary geneticist at Emory, reported that fruit flies anticipate a risk to their offspring and self-medicate by laying their eggs in an alcohol-rich environment, usually fermenting fruit. The alcohol that envelops the hatchlings protects them from wasp attacks. To reproduce, the tiny wasps will lay their eggs inside the baby fruit flies. If the fly can’t stop them, the baby wasps eat their way out of their “nursery” and kill their host. The alcohol essentially gets the wasps drunk and keeps them from functioning properly. His original work was published in the February 22 issue of the journal Science.

fruit flyThis month, Schlenke told NPR that not only do fruit flies baby-proof  their children with alcohol, but when given a choice they’ll pick the right proof  – about 3 percent. That's considerably less than the 12 to 14 percent in a glass of wine, but evidently enough to disable or kill the wasps. But some wasps are developing a higher tolerance for alcohol, Schlenke told NPR, so the flies may need more potent sources to improve their survival strategy.

“It’s sort of an arms race, I think,” Schlenke told NPR. “The flies do something to avoid being infected, and the wasps learn how to get around it.”

To read the NPR article, click here. 

To listen to the original NPR story about Schlenke’s fruit fly research, click here.

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