Researchers believe flies can help unlock the secrets to staying healthier longer -- but first they have to get them to work out
Robert Wessells, Ph.D., puts his fruit flies through a grueling daily workout in a quest to understand how their genes respond to exercise and to uncover clues that may one day help people stay healthier and more active into their advanced years.
A day in the life of a fly is roughly equivalent to a year for a human, so researchers like Wessells use them to study the long-term effects of exercise on the body without having to follow human subjects for decades or worry about outside influences contaminating their results.
The experiments show, for example, that after “years” of regular exercise, elderly flies demonstrate the vigor of middle-aged flies, says Wessells, an assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School.
“The goal is not to extend their life spans, but to improve their ability to move around well and have a good quality of life as they age,” he continues. “And it turns out that flies have some of the same trouble that humans do – getting started is the hardest part.”
But before beginning the research, Wessells had to solve a real head-scratcher – how do you get a fly to exercise?
He says the credit for the solution goes to his former lab technician Nicole Piazza.
Piazza, who graduated from U-M last year with an M.P.H. and is on her way to becoming a dietician, dubbed her invention the Power Tower after a vertical thrill ride at Cedar Point amusement park.
The flies are housed in tiers of test tubes inside a wooden frame. Every 20 seconds, a motorized arm trips a lever and drops the frame a short distance causing the flies to be knocked to the bottom of the tube.
And as soon as they fall down, they scurry back up the wall. They do it again and again and again.
“The machine takes advantage of their natural instinct to climb up the vial,” Piazza says.
The flies are genetically identical, which makes it easier to isolate the differences spurred by the exercise, Wessells notes.
The ultimate goal of the research, which recently received a $400,000 grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, is to develop new treatments and therapies for people.
“In the future the research may allow us to design genetic or pharmacological mimics to provide the benefits of exercise – even to those who cannot exercise due to advanced age, illness or injury,” Wessells says.