Myrmecos

A True Fruit Fly - Tephritidae

Fruit flies are a family, Tephritidae, containing about 5,000 species of often strikingly colored insects.  As the name implies, these flies are frugivores.  Many, such as the mediterranean fruit fly, are agricultural pests.

Drosophila melanogaster, the insect that has been so important in genetic research, is not a true fruit fly.  Drosophila is a member of the Drosophilidae, the vinegar or pomace flies.  They are mostly fungivores, and their association with fruit is indirect: they eat the fungus that lives in rotting fruit.  Some pointy-headed geneticist started using the wrong common name for them a century ago, and legions of geneticists unfortunately followed suit. Now when someone says “fruit fly” we have no way of knowing what sort of insect it is without additional context.

I bring this up because the confusion between fruit flies and vinegar flies entered into U.S. presidential politics this week when Sarah Palin attacked Fruit Fly spending as wasteful:

Where does a lot of that earmark money end up anyway? […] You’ve heard about some of these pet projects they really don’t make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.

Palin was referring to a project to fund studies of the olive fruit fly, a true tephritid and a major threat to California’s olive industry.  Popular biology blogger PZ Myers made the common lab scientist mistake of thinking fruit fly meant Drosophila, and was off and running with political commentary:

This idiot woman, this blind, shortsighted ignoramus, this pretentious clod, mocks basic research and the international research community….Yes, scientists work on fruit flies. Some of the most powerful tools in genetics and molecular biology are available in fruit flies, and these are animals that are particularly amenable to experimentation.

Myers’ rant was picked up across the progressive blogosphere, hammering on Palin’s inconsistency of appearing to support programs to understand childhood autism yet cutting funding for the very basic science that would underpin the research.

The issue of whether spending in support of agricultural industry is sound policy is beyond our expertise here at myrmecos blog.  I would like to point out, however, that the debate is best served if all sides were at least talking about the same thing.

Drosophila - A Vinegar Fly, not a Fruit Fly

Drosophila - A Vinegar Fly, not a Fruit Fly

Comments

  1. #1 ihateaphids
    October 26, 2008

    It is still correct in that she is mocking basic research, however, whatever the organism. I made the same mistake honestly, simply because Drosophila are commonly referred to as fruit flies, and I have a hard time believing Palin has ever heard of Tephritids. But the organism matters little in this case, really. I react the same way when they highlight the ’1,000,000 dollars to study bear DNA,’ as it demonstrates a clear and consistent anti-science viewpoint .

  2. #2 Susannah
    October 26, 2008

    I think the autism reference is valid, however; Palin, and her cheering section probably meant, and understood, by “fruit flies”, the flies they see in their kitchens when the kids leave banana peels lying about.

  3. #3 myrmecos
    October 26, 2008

    There are several big-scale issues here, as I see them. Aside from the Fruit Fly/Vinegar Fly one, that is.

    1. McCain/Palin’s demagoguery of science and the continued Republican promotion of anti-intellectualism as a campaign strategy. Definitely bad.

    2. The use of congressional earmarks to fund research external to the usual scientific agencies (NIH, NSF, DOE, etc). A legitimate policy issue.

    3. The government’s role in supporting industry. Regardless of any confusion on the part of Palin and the bloggers, this particular fly research is an agricultural subsidy of sorts. Also a legitimate policy issue.

    4. The government’s role in supporting basic research.

    I worry that by tangling these issues together in a “kitchen sink” approach when we fight back against #1, we give the medievalists ammunition by reinforcing the science=pork connection they already see.

  4. #4 ihateaphids
    October 27, 2008

    I somewhat agree…except I don’t really understand the whole conservative pork issue. they are equally responsible for such stuff. i say we take our funding where we can get it. grants are one means, but creative lobbying is not off limits AFAIC.

  5. #5 MrILoveTheAnts
    October 27, 2008

    Would “Moldy Fruit Fly” be such a stretch? How do you change the common name to something?

  6. #6 myrmecos
    October 27, 2008

    The thing is, the drosophilids already had a perfectly good common name: Vinegar flies.

  7. #7 Alehkhs
    January 15, 2009

    Well good news, you don’t have to worry about her anyways!

  8. #8 anki
    September 2, 2009

    hello, nice blog you have. I found it when I search on Tephritidae, I have a fruit fly who is similar your first picture, I wonder if you know the right name on that fly? Xyphosia miliaria is more red and with red eyes, my picture is more grey with green eyes, as your first picutre.. I really want to know the real name on it. :-)

    have a nice day