One Fly's Dot is Another Person's Cancer

By Allison Mills | Published

 The genes of fruit flies offer insight into human cancer. A suite of genes—called toolkit genes because they can build the basic body plans of all animals—can mutate in fruit flies, leading to a colorful variety of spots and patterns. The same genes in humans can lead to cancer. Thomas Werner, an assistant professor of biology, has received a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to study these toolkit genes in Drosophila guttifera fruit flies.

Fruit fly Drosophila guttifera
Thomas Werner studies genes in the fruit fly species Drosophila guttifera.


Werner will be looking at specific genes that regulate abdominal colors and patterns. In past research, he has researched genes connected to wing dots, for which part of his post-doctoral work made the cover of Nature, as well as other features of fruit fly genetics including the link between pesticide resistance and mushroom toxins.

"There are a few hundred toolkit genes that all animals share and they build us as embryos and continue to help us as we develop. But the differences in their regulation—when and where and how much they function—brings about the diversity of life." Thomas Werner

The NIH grant is $363,359 and covers three years, including funds for one graduate student and three undergraduates. Werner says including students is an important part of his research. During the past five years, he has put more than 60 undergraduates to work in his lab, introducing students to the rigor of basic science. After all, it takes a veritable army to fight cancer—one tiny fruit fly at a time.

Fruit Fly Close Up
Fruit fly genetics offer insight into human cancer.


Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.

Last Modified 4:17 p.m. February, 20 2019