It was all something of an accident and maybe a bit crazy to boot, says Ulrike Heberlein, a young geneticist who had learned her tradeworking with fliesas a postdoctoral fellow in Gerald Rubin's lab at the University of California, Berkeley. She had studied the development of flies' eyes, which was what Rubin did. In 1993, however, Heberlein was already 37 years old and she needed to find a job. "You can only be a postdoc so long," she says. "You have to move on in life and become independent." So she took a job at the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center at the University of California, San Francisco.
The Gallo Center, which is partially funded by winemaker Ernest Gallo, seeks new ways of treating alcoholism. Heberlein's task was to look for the genetic basis of alcoholism in fruit flies.
"They wanted to see if one could use Drosophila genetics as a model for alcohol-induced behaviors," says Heberlein. "I thought it was extremely risky. If it didn't work, I would have invested a tremendous amount of my lifetime as a scientist on this. And most everybody else thought it was a bit crazy." But, she adds, "I wanted this job, and I am not necessarily opposed to doing crazy things."
Step one in the research, says Heberlein, was to establish what happens to flies when they become drunk. While the scientific literature, she says, was "pretty vast" on the toxic effects of alcohol on flies, there was precious little on what happened when flies were exposed to low to moderate amounts of alcohol--what happened, in effect, as they went from sober to inebriated.
Heberlein took a few flies, put them in a clear plastic box, and pumped in a bit of ethanol vapor (ethanol is the alcohol in alcoholic beverages). The flies breathed in the vapor and ended up with enough in their systems to make them, by the standards applied to humans, legally intoxicated and a hazard on the highways. The flies' behavior was curiously familiar: "Within the first couple of minutes of alcohol exposure, the flies would become extremely hyperactive," she says. "Soon thereafter they would become uncoordinated as the levels of alcohol in their systems rose, and then they began falling over. Eventually, they just passed out."
Gary A. Taubes
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Ulrike Heberlein observes flies as they go through her inebriometer, a device that measures their reaction to alcohol.
Photo: Kay Chernush