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May 18, 2012 / thomaschadwick20245886

Sex, Drugs and… Fruit Flies?

The article “Sexually deprived flies turn to alcohol”[1] summarizes a paper[2] published in Science that correlates the act of sex and the consumption of alcoholic food in fruit flies. It was found that both the act of sex and the act of consuming alcohol were linked to the levels of a certain neurotransmitter, neuropeptide F (NPF), present in the fruit flies. Flies that had recently had sex showed high levels of NPF, while flies that had their sexual advances denied showed low levels of NPF. The flies that were spurned (and therefore had low levels of NPF) then tended to consume significantly more alcohol more than the sexually gratified flies.

On face value this story doesn’t appear to have much value to the average reader. Who cares about alcoholic, sexually frustrated fruit flies? Not many people regularly interact with fruit flies, and they certainly don’t seem to be scientifically equivalent to humans in this case.

What makes this study newsworthy is the link that the author draws between the study of fruit flies and related issue of drug addiction in humans. As lead author of the scientific paper and geneticist Galit Shohat-Ophir is quoted as saying:

“Understanding this system in flies might tell us [why the] human brain perceives social interactions as rewarding, and how systems and situations in which the reward systems don’t function properly like in addiction arise. This may give us more tools in the future to develop better therapies”[1]

By making this link the author ensures that more people will be intrigued by the article, purely because it is about something they can relate to. Without this link the potential audience of this story would be seriously limited.

But is the link between flies and humans really there, or is it just an attempt to make this story more readable at the expense of scientific accuracy?

In my opinion the link is there, and the author accurately and fairly demonstrates that fact. The scientific study doesn’t draw any erroneous conclusions, and neither does the author. The relationship between alcohol, sex and neurotransmitters is fairly represented, and both the study and the Cosmos article explain how other factors were ruled out, and how there is a neurologically similar transmitter (and similar behaviours) found in humans. There is even a brief section near the end of the story in which another scientist encourages the reader to be sceptical about the study and not to draw conclusions that aren’t there. The author never claims overly strong connections between alcohol and sex, and there aren’t any statements that declare unreasonable causations. All in all, the story stays true to the science, and yet manages to make it interesting and easy to read.

And of course any story that contains keywords like ‘sex’, ‘drugs’ and ‘alcohol’ are instantly going to be attention grabbing.

References:

[1] Soppe, R. (2012, 16 March). Sexually deprived flies turn to alcohol. Cosmos Online. Retrieved from http://www.cosmosmagazine.com/node/5419/full

[2] Shohat-Ophir, G., et. al. (2012) Sexual Deprivation Increases Ethanol Intake in Drosophila. Science. 335(6074):1351-1355. Retrieved from: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/335/6074/1351.abstract?sid=de92f881-a57d-4ced-b34a-531162f2a2a6

Question: What are the attributes of this story that make it news worthy? Does the author portray the scientific research fairly?

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9 Comments

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  1. ashfonty / May 19 2012 2:17 pm

    I thought your blog post was great! I was immediately drawn in by the title and your opening paragraph didn’t disappoint. However, I have to disagree with your statement, ‘On face value this story doesn’t appear to have much value to the average reader. Who cares about alcoholic, sexually frustrated fruit flies?’ My partner litterally jumped off the couch to come and read the article when I told him what it was about! I thought it was a pretty interesting topic, but was impressed by the writers ability to keep it scientific, without being boring!

    I am still not convinced even though I agree that the researcher has made a good argument for his link between fruit flies and humans. I spose I am always a little sceptical about how well research translates between species. I think we have cured cancer in mice a dozen times now – but still no luck for us humans. I may have been more convinced if Soppe hadn’t ended with the paragraph about evolutionary biology. It took away from the ‘punch’ of Shohat-Ophir’s statements.

  2. axl1228 / May 20 2012 6:40 am

    Good post! Your post is very easy to read and understand, and I love the title! I agree that sex and drugs always catch eyes.
    I have the same feeling as Ash that the link between fruit flies and humans is not very clear stated in the article. At least he didn’t explain the logic of translating between the two different species. The tricky fact is that “Sexually deprived MEN turn to alcohol” is a very common social norm that we believe it’s true with no hesitate. So when we see the result of fruit flies, it’s easily related to our social experience, and that make the connect between these two statement seem close.
    Anyway, well done!

  3. djasudasen / May 20 2012 6:49 am

    You hit the nail on the head when you said “any story that contains keywords like ‘sex’, ‘drugs’ and ‘alcohol’ are instantly going to be attention grabbing”. I therefore agree with ashfonty that the story did not need to extrapolate and talk about the link to humans to make it newsworthy. What makes it newsworth for me is the concept that those tiny fruit flies actually have feelings and behave like humans do. It’s easy to see how mammals who care for their young behave similarly to humans but fruit flies???

    What I want to know is why this sort of research is always done on males. What about predatory females out on the prowl? I know I definitely drink more when I’ve been rejected!

  4. chimk / May 20 2012 9:30 am

    I found the title suitable and enganging, however the link between fruit flies and humans is not very clearly linked, as already said maybe the author connected this with the general overview that human beings who are sex deprived turn to alcohol, but maybe if the the author could provide some justification for the link.

    Otherwise your blog was enganging, good job.

  5. priscillalyf / May 21 2012 2:12 pm

    Eye catchy post! What caught my attention was the title of the blog post. Therefore I read more into it and it was a good post overall. Whenever there are keywords like ‘sex’, ‘drugs’ and ‘alcohol’, it always seems to be a good and interesting read. Generally no matter what the topic is, it gets the reader interested.

    I too do not see the clear connection between fruit flies and drug addiction in humans. In saying that like you said there was some sort of connection based on facts and referencing other studies to strengthen the argument. But connecting fruit flies to humans is a big connection which would take a lot of studies and facts to actually make it applicable to humans, because the human anatomy and a fly anatomy are not similar at all. When one neurotransmitter could react a certain way in humans, the same neurotransmitter could react a different way in flies or other animals.

    In answering your questions, what makes this story news worthy is the title of the article “Sexually deprived flies turn to alcohol” instantly it is eye catching and people want to know more, because I think curiosity drives people to read articles. Also the author does partly portray the scientific research fairly, but as mentioned before there needs to be lots and lots of research shown in order to truly be convinced that fruit flies can be related to humans.

  6. caitiedunlap / May 23 2012 1:09 am

    I’ll have to act like a sheep here and follow the rest of the comments in saying the title was very attention grabbing but i think you were very lucky with the topic and it was naturally attention grabbing, regardless of how it was stated.. But in saying that i think your heading was quite clever.

    I do have to agree with ashfonty in the fact that just because there is a link in flies doesnt mean there is a link in humans, however the fact that flies have been used many times before as a model for humans does probably assist researchers in more so understanding and identifying the link, rather than just purely concluding that it is the same in flies as it is in humans.

    The way you justified the link between humans and fruit flies being legitiment with the information provided in the article was well done. I like how you looked at all parts of the article and broke it down into a succinct paragraph.

    Overall good job and an amusing topic.

  7. thomaschadwick20245886 / May 25 2012 5:33 am

    Thanks for the feedback everyone! I’m glad you found my writing engaging and catchy.

    I will reply en bloc because most of the replies are about the same subjects.

    Firstly, I feel that while the subject of my post may be interesting to many of us here, we all do science and are generally interested in scientific research, and so are more likely to be hooked by this sort of topic. I asked two other (non-sciencey) people what they thought of the research and they weren’t that keen – especially because it was about fruit flies, which they couldn’t relate to. I know it’s a small sample but I think it shows that opinion can go either way.
    That said, the article was published in Cosmos, in which case you would assume the reader has an interest in scientific research and therefore would be likely to be hooked by this topic. In which case there is no need to try and make a weak link from the research to humans in order to spice up the story.

    The link the author makes from fruit flies to humans isn’t that solid, but in the author’s defense he does quite clearly state the scientific reasons for making that link, without stating outright that the two situations are equivalent. The article talks about the link between the neurotransmitters (NPF in flies, and NPY in humans), rather than making a direct link between behavior in fruit flies and humans, which to me seems like an accurate way of portraying the science. It’s not so much a misrepresentation of the truth, but more a weak link that is probably unnecessary, especially if we consider the target audience.

    I wrote my post after reading both an interview transcript and perspective piece that both talked about the link the research had to human behavior, so that probably affected my opinion when I was writing.

    In conclusion, the link may seem a little weak, but if there isn’t a link between the research being conducted and some sort of real world application, then most readers would question what the purpose of the research was in the first place.

    Links:
    Perspective piece: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/335/6074/1309.full
    Transcript: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/335/6074/1385.2/suppl/DC1 (see page 5)

  8. kellyfitzsimons1 / May 26 2012 5:37 am

    I agree with everyone that your title and opening paragraphs were exceptionally catchy.

    In response to thomaschadwick20245886 comment; you raise an important point in that not everyone is going to be as interested in science as we are. In saying that, there are ways that we can engage the non-science world and excite them about science. One technique is to make the content relatable. This is what the author has attempted to do when writing “Sexually deprived flies turn to alcohol”. I enjoyed this link between fruit flies and humans, as I found it funny that human behaviour could be related to that of fruit flies. I think that it was appropriate in this case, and the author clearly expresses not to draw conclusions that aren’t there. It lightens the article, provides some entertainment whilst still conveying the accurate scientific facts. I see no harm in doing this.

    In saying that, there are many different ways in that this article could be written and everyone would write it differently. That is what makes science writing so exciting. I would be very interested in reading the same article without the human link and comparing them.

    Overall, well done on an engaging blog. 🙂

  9. noelynn / May 27 2012 9:14 pm

    A very good post! The title attracts people as much as to relate to social experience. However, like ashfonty highlighted, “who cares about fruit flies?”. However, their behaviour may in a small way correlates to our social life by perception.

    I also agree with djasudasen, why male all the time? Females can also be subjects of study.

    Overall, I enjoyed reading the post.

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