Fly ears and rock concerts

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

Pictured here is a Drosophila melanogaster, or a fruit fly. It may not have ears on the side of its head, but its auditory system is remarkably human.

Enjoy blasting music on your headphones? Find it appealing to keep the TV on high volume to enhance the effects of car crashes and explosions? I do. In fact, I also love going to rock concerts and surround sound theaters, and yes, occasionally blasting the radio when my favorite song comes on! However, all these seemingly innocent activities put me at risk for what is known as noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL)! That is, I can become somewhat deaf if I continue to assault my ears with loud noise. Researchers have long studied this phenomenon, but now they’re using the common fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, to do it.

Looking at flies to study hearing? What the heck? They don’t even have ears! There’s no way researchers can use the bothersome insects to understand a human problem. Actually, there is. According to biologists from the University of Iowa (UI), a fruit fly’s auditory system – their sound detection system – is surprisingly similar to our own hearing. What better way to study NIHL on flies, than taking them to a rock concert? Daniel Eberl, a UI biology professor, monitored the flies’ hearing as he blasted music with all the raging volume of a concert, then contrasted that by playing sounds at a normal level. Based on the results, the flies experienced NIHL from the crazy loud speakers, just like a human would. “As far as we know, this is the first time anyone has used an insect system as a model for NIHL,” said Eberl.

The researchers will continue to study fruit flies to further their understanding of NIHL and hopefully discover a possible treatment that can be used on humans. If you ever go to a concert of your favorite band, don’t be surprised to see a tiny Drosophila melanogaster buzzing along to the beat!

Featured image courtesy of Mr.Checker on Wikimedia.