TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Out of hundreds of species of fruit flies, a handful can eat toxic mushrooms, and understanding why and how they pull this off could answer broader questions about evolution and adaptation.
With nearly $1 million in support from the National Science Foundation, two researchers at The University of Alabama will study certain species of Drosophila, or fruit flies, to sort out how they adapted to eat the poisonous fungus and how that adaption has influenced the lineage of the species.
The work is part of NSF’s Dimensions of Biodiversity program, a unique research initiative that integrates multiple areas of study, in contrast to traditional biodiversity studies that focus on one taxonomic group or ecosystem.
“Understanding the biological condition of how this toxin is tolerated can inform the bigger picture of how toxin tolerance evolves and influences biodiversity,” said Dr. Laura Reed, UA assistant professor of biological sciences, whose lab is leading the study.
Species develop unique abilities and characteristics, but not much is known about chemical adaptations inside an organism and how those are maintained over time, particularly adaptations costly to the individual.
Reed’s lab group uses the fruit fly to understand larger themes. Although simple organisms, the fruit fly has a corresponding gene in its genome for about 75 percent of all human disease genes.
Some groups of the fruit fly consume high doses of the potent toxin cyclopeptide found in mushrooms such as the Destroying Angel and Death Caps. Even just half of the mushroom top is a fatal dose to an adult human. However, the tiny flies are able to eat and process the toxin.
These flies can eat the toxic mushrooms, but they do not feed off them exclusively.
Dr. Clare Scott Chialvo, a postdoctoral fellow in Reed’s lab and co-principal investigator on the study, said the adaptation could benefit the particular flies because no other species dare eat the
mushrooms, which can help when food is not guaranteed.
“When your resources come and go, it’s beneficial to use whatever is available,” she said.
She and Reed will examine how the flies absorb the poison and how their genes are affected, and how selection plays a role in the evolution of this adaption.
With this understanding, the project should lead to better predictions of the conditions that give rise to toxin tolerance and how it influences evolution, Scott Chialvo said.
The UA researchers will collaborate with Dr. Kelly Dyer from the University of Georgia and Dr. Thomas Werner at Michigan Technological University.
The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.