Scientists genetically engineered fruit flies to moonwalk

After developing 3,500 strains of fruit flies, the scientists found a fly that moonwalks in response to heat.
By Brooks Hays   |   April 4, 2014 at 5:41 PM
| License Photo

VIENNA, April 4 (UPI) -- Most land animals walk forward. But many, including insects, can quickly switch to creeping smoothly backward upon seeing an obstacle or a potential predator on the path ahead.

Michael Jackson was able to effortlessly perfect the move -- dubbed the "moonwalk" -- but scientists have struggled to understand exactly how the brain tells the body to walk backwards.

To solve the riddle, scientists at the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology in Vienna, Austria, developed 3,500 different strains of fruit flies. Each strain was genetically modified to vary the parts of the insects brain that responds to heat -- a technique called thermogenetics.

Each modification affected which neurons (and corresponding behaviors) would fire in response to heat. After several hundred tries, the scientists found a fly that moonwalks when things get hot. In locating the modification and thus the neurons that initiate moonwalking, scientists can begin to map the neural network that controls backward walking.

The scientists plan to do further testing to expand their understanding of this neural network and how neural pathways signal a specimen to walk backward in response to touch, sight, and smell.

[Science Magazine]

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