What fruit flies can tell us about human eyesight

Fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) have compound eyes with hundreds of tiny lenses. Humans have camera-type eyes, each with a single lens, cornea and retina. Surprisingly, those multifaceted bug eyes can teach us a lot about why people are more likely to develop eye diseases as they age, says Vikki Weake, an assistant professor of biochemistry and member of the Purdue Institute for Integrative Neuroscience.

“Seventy-five percent of human disease-related genes have orthologs in fruit flies, meaning that they evolved from the same ancestral genes,” Weake says. And inside their photoreceptors, the specialized neurons in eyes, fruit flies share many of the same proteins as humans. The insects also have short life spans, so the genetic changes they experience with aging happen in just 30 to 50 days.

Inside her lab in Purdue’s Biochemistry Building, Weake and her team house hundreds of flies in neatly arranged test tubes. Once the flies grow old, they extract their DNA. Then, with the help of Purdue’s supercomputers, they sort through tens of thousands of genes, looking for subtle changes.

“Our working hypothesis is that there are changes in the mechanism of transcription — how genes are expressed. There are large protein machines that make a copy of the DNA onto RNA, which is then made into the protein which in turn does all the jobs in a cell,” Weake says. Because light-sensing proteins in photoreceptors must continually regenerate, over time, small defects in protein production can affect the neuron’s function.

Aging is the leading risk factor for blindness. “If we can identify the mechanism that causes transcription to become defective as photoreceptors age, we might be able to target drugs to deal with that,” Weake says.

“By delaying the transcription problem, we could give people another five to ten years of healthy eyesight.”

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