Levitating Fruit Flies Help Unlock Zero Gravity’s Effects
A team of scientists at the University of Nottingham have employed a technique known as “diamagnetic levitation” to observe if there are changes in fruit fly behavior when they are exposed to space-like conditions.
Making fruit flies levitate may seem slightly redundant, however researchers were keen to observe how the flies’ behavior changed when exposed to weightlessness.
Dr Richard Hill, an EPSRC research fellow in the University’s School of Physics and Astronomy, is one of the researchers involved in the study. He explains why the technique cannot yet be used on humans but why the research is necessary:
“It is unfeasible to apply this technique to investigating the effects of weightlessness on a human being directly: no magnet exists that can do this. However, by studying the effects on ‘model’ organisms such as the fruit fly, we can hope to obtain information about the effects of weightlessness on particular biological mechanisms.
“It’s also important to remember that, in our future endeavours to explore space, setting up permanent bases on our Moon, or Mars for example, or other planets, it will be crucial to understand the effects of weightlessness on all living organisms: our long-term survival will of course require us to take with us many different biological organisms.”
The research, details of which are published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, allows scientists to observe the effects of altering effective gravity on complex, multi-cellular organisms, giving them further insight into how evolution on the planet Earth has equipped life to withstand the constant pull of gravity, and what happens when that gravity is not present.
No Harry Potter-style wand waving was required to make the flies levitate though, only a strong magnetic field that allows water and organic based materials to become weightless.
Importantly, this technique allows for strict conditions so scientists were able to identify that the alteration of effective gravity was indeed responsible for any changing behavior in the flies.
After scientists observed the flies, which were suspended in a plastic tube, they were able to confirm that the flies’ behavior did in fact change. The flies were observed walking more quickly and more frequently in lower gravity conditions when compared with their activity on the ground.
As to why the flies move quicker, scientists are unsure. They do have a number of ideas though: that it is easier for the flies to move and thus they do so faster and more frequently, or that their rapid movements are in fact because reduced gravity conditions make them confused about which way is up or down.
This latest experiment builds on previous observations of fruit fly behavior when tested on the International Space Station.
Magnetic fields have been used in several previous studies to levitate organic materials and, in 1997, even a live frog.
You can click here to read more on the study, including how the scientists were able to control for the other effects that magnets can have on living organisms.