Have you ever cut half of a banana in your Cheerios, then let the other half sit long enough on your counter so that, by the next morning, it has attracted fruit flies ? If you haven’t, you should try it right away. When you do, spend part of your morning observing fly behavior. Specifically, try picking which one is the mean one.
A recent study in Nature Neuroscience by the lab of Zhou, Rao and Rao (the latter two being former members of the popular indie pop band “Rao Rao Rao UrBoat”) studies a slight neurological mutation that affects aggressive behavior in Drosophila, a trait described, according to them, in 1915 (because the study of aggression in Germans had become too crowded of a field).
The paper begins strongly: “Although the general importance of aggression is obvious from the global to the individual levels, we find it surprising that biological research of aggression has not substantially increased over the last 30 years.” They sound pretty mad it. They argue that aggression is a highly conserved trait that ensures selection and survival, which explains why butterflies have lasted so long.
How, do you ask, does one study aggression in fruit flies. Easy. You put two of them in a bottle, and watch them until they start beating on each other. This same experiment has been replicated unethically on humans for hundreds of years in college dorms across the country. Anyway, you then put a female in the bottle and wait till one of them gets lucky (also replicated at college- again, no waiver for this on any university applications). Then you take the meaner ones and look for differences.
It’s published, so they must have found something. They found that mutations in a precursor to the neural transmitter octopamine directly affects the social aggressive behavior of the fly. Lowering octopaminergic activity makes them pansy-ish (think George McFly pre-Delorian) and raising the levels makes them more aggressive in social situations (George McFly post-Delorian. Do you see how the word “fly” is right in the name? Classic.) In conclusion, small subsets of neurons can be modulated to affect aggression.
Now, you may be thinking, “Why should I care what makes a fruit fly madder at other fruit flies?” Well you may not. But let’s just say that swarms of fruit flies start overstepping their bounds and horrifically attacking people, beginning with people wearing kiwi-scented shampoo. What would you do? Well, since you read this article, then clearly you would develop a body spray laced with a strong octopamine antagonist. It would be like Daniel in the Lion’s Den, if lions were squishable.
Knowledge is Power.