From Pushing Flies to Leading Armies

Alan Packer at Free Association, the Nature Genetics blog, reports that Kossack Wesley Clark was once a fly pusher. During the Cold War (aka, before my time), gifted students were taught genetics in an accelerated course. They got to perform experiments using irradiated Drosophila melanogaster. As a stickler for details, I’ve got a couple errors to point out in the General’s story:

And so, in the Federal Radiation Project, they talked to us and they taught us about genetics with the, the species was Drosophila melanogaster, which is the common fruit fly.

I feel like a broken record, but Drosophila are not fruit flies. I can understand a lay person like Clark getting this mixed up, and I can even tolerate molecular geneticists getting it screwed up (they think the fly’s natural environment is a small glass vial in an incubator). I just can’t take it when evolutionary biologists don’t know their shit.

Anyway, Clark also appeared a bit confused when describing the experiment he performed:

He’d take them over to the University of Arkansas Medical center and give them, you know, thousands of roentgens, rads. He, he irradiated them, thank goodness not us. The radiation was on the fruit flies. And the idea was could you mutate the fruit flies – could you convert yellow eyes into, into, into red eyes? And so, we spent about six weeks on this, and I don’t know if we ever produced a new modern fruit fly. I think we produced a lot of sterile fruit flies.

Wesley Clark was a young HJ Muller. Seriously, though, yellow eyes? They either had yellow bodies, or white eyes. I’ve never heard of yellow eyed flies. And reversion mutations to create wild-type flies? I’ve never heard of this, and I doubt X-rays will recreate wild-type flies (probably better to go with EMS). But, hey, Wes Clark was a fly pusher, and that’s kinda cool.

Clark’s full speech is available here.

P.S. Free Association really needs to update their links — I’ve moved!


  1. #1 Paul Decelles
    June 18, 2006

    Mea culpa-I just referred to Drosophila as fruit flies myself…maybe D. melanogaster the “banana fly” since that seems to be its natural habitat around my office. 🙂

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