Sex, Drugs and… Fruit Flies?
The article “Sexually deprived flies turn to alcohol” summarizes a paper 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”
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.
 Soppe, R. (2012, 16 March). Sexually deprived flies turn to alcohol. Cosmos Online. Retrieved from http://www.cosmosmagazine.com/node/5419/full
 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?