Spotting a trend in the genes: Three genes that cause cancer and disease in humans also 'paint' spots on butts of fruit flies

Thomas Werner and his PhD student Komal Kumar Bollepogu Raja have discovered that the same three genes that cause cancer and disease in humans also “paint” the abdominal spots on fruit flies’ bodies. This discovery may enable researchers to study how the genes work in fruit flies and apply that knowledge to treating cancer in humans.

“The last common ancestor of man and fruit flies lived about 600 million years ago,” says Werner. “All the genes needed to build a body were already present in that ancestor, and today we still share virtually all of our body-building genes with fruit flies. This is why we are able to study human diseases like cancer in fruit flies.”

Werner and Raja have made strong connections between the spots fruit flies develop and three specific genes, all of which have counterparts in humans relating strongly to cancer and other diseases. The discovery of these genes in the fruit fly may serve as a great model for the understanding of genetic pathways that cause cancer in humans. “We are looking here at proto-oncogenes, which are cancer genes that cause disease when they are active in an uncontrolled manner,” Werner explains. “Both humans and flies have them, and in flies they learned to paint black spots on the abdomen.”

These three genes also have different roles besides spot development in flies and disease in humans. Some allow the definition of the head-to-tail axis in animals, including the proper development of the vertebrae in humans. If the genes do not function properly during the development of the human embryo, disabilities or embryonic death can occur. By studying these genes, Werner and Raja believe they can identify targets for gene therapies against cancer and genetically inherited developmental defects.

Walikainen, Dennis. Michigan Technological University (2012, October 12). Spotting a trend in the genes: Three genes that cause cancer and disease in humans also 'paint' spots on butts of fruit flies. Retrieved November 2, 2012, from http://www.mtu.edu/news/stories/2012/october/story79202.html