Research On the Fly

Biologist O'Connor says the little Drosophila may tell us a lot about the human aging process

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Research by Boston College biologists on tiny and prolific fruit flies may shed light on the human aging process.

Assoc. Prof. Clare O'Connor (Biology).
Assoc. Prof. Clare O'Connor (Biology) and colleagues found that fruit flies that produce an excess of a protein-repair enzyme live about a third longer than flies that produce it at a normal rate.

The researchers inserted an extra copy of the gene for a protein-repair enzyme called a methyltransferase into flies and exposed the insects to higher-than-normal temperatures to trigger the gene.

These flies lived significantly longer, lending support to the theory that the buildup of damaged proteins in cells limits lifespan.

The findings were published in the Dec. 18, 2001, edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The paper grew out of the thesis research of one of O'Connor's graduate students in biology, David Chavous, PhD '01, now studying at Boston College Law School, with an interest in patent law.

Chavous is lead author on the paper, sharing a byline with Tufts Medical School neuroscientist F. Rob Jackson and O'Connor.

The Drosophila fruit fly is a boon to the genetic researcher, said O'Connor, in that the insect shares many biological processes in common with man, is inexpensive to maintain, and propagates extensively during a lifespan of only a month and a half.

"Think of them as model organisms," said O'Connor, whose Higgins laboratory incubator is filled with bottles of the buzzing flies. A corner of her lab is stacked with cases of vintage glass half-pint milk-bottles from a New Hampshire dairy that she uses to grow colonies of the tiny insects.

Geneticists have been working with fruit flies since the turn of the 20th century, and a very extensive body of genetic research has been compiled on the insects. The recent determination of the genome (or DNA) sequence will facilitate future experimentation with Drosophila, since it provides molecular information to complement this already large body of genetic information.

The life span of the Drosophila is short, not much more than six weeks, which allows the aging process to be studied in an accelerated period of time, said O'Connor.

And the propensity of the flies to reproduce - "I like to call them the fruitful flies," said O'Connor - allows for genetic variations to be readily introduced and tracked.

Her research into protein-repair enzymes is being done under a multiyear grant from the National Institute on Aging.

The recent findings confirm a theory that the methyltransferase protein-repair enzyme "has a protective effect against the aging process," O'Connor said. "It gives us a nice future model to try to extend into human health.

"What we hope is that as we start to understand the structure of protein-repair methyltransferases, perhaps drugs could be made to enhance the effectiveness of these important enzymes," she said.


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