Take one ordinary fruit fly… add one ingenious robot… and you have the necessary items for one of the most unique breakthroughs in Alzheimer’s disease research.
At Stanford University, scientists are combining high-tech robotics, computing, biology, and physics to gain new insights into the factors behind the debilitating neurological disease.
And they’re using the common fruit fly to do it.
While we mostly curse these pesky insects for munching through our fruit, humans actually have a lot in common with fruit flies when it comes to genetic makeup. In fact, over half of the genes known to trigger or affect human diseases are common in fruit flies, too.
As Stanford’s Associate Professor of Biology and Applied Physics, Mark Schnitzer, says, “Historically, the fruit fly has been an important model for the study of various biological processes and has led to important discoveries initially in genetics but then in other fields, as well.”
So they’re ideal candidates for neurological research.
The trouble is, they’re so small that conducting research on their brains is incredibly difficult and time-consuming. That’s where robots come in…
Put the Newspaper Down… Here’s a Much Better Fly Catcher
As Schnitzer continues, “We looked at this situation and thought, well, the fruit fly offers so many advantages and a powerful suit of genetic tools. On the other hand, there’s a lot of human labor involved. But with the advent of modern robotic technology, we should be able to change the situation and add a degree of automation to the field that simply hadn’t existed before.”
The process begins by releasing the flies onto a dish in the dark. Pitch dark, in fact, so that the flies don’t fly away.
Then, using sophisticated robotics, computing, high-speed cameras, and sensors, the intricate robot gets to work on the insects with unprecedented speed and accuracy.
Guided by infrared cameras, a suction needle carefully catches a fly and positions it for research. There’s no need to drug the insect, which makes the process untainted. As Stanford biologist, Cheng Huang, confirms, “That you can precisely handle the fly without any anesthesia means it can actually give you a clean brain to study.” That makes for more accurate results.
Take a look at the operation for yourself…
Scientists have known for some time that there are genetic links between humans and flies.
However, the trouble has always been finding the time and precision necessary to examine the tiny creatures.
Until now, that is. Thanks to some terrific advances in robotics, biology, and neuroscience, scientists can now research the causes and symptoms of our most puzzling neurological diseases much faster and more accurately.