Thanks to a team of geneticists at Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University, the fruit fly has become the first insect species to be taught numerical skills. The team state that they have successfully bred fruit flies with the capacity to count, after repeatedly subjecting fruit flies to a stimulus designed to teach numerical skills. After 40 tries, the geneticists finally created a generation of flies that could count before the skill had evolved naturally.
The rather amazing findings were announced at the First Joint Congress on Evolutionary Biology in Canada, however some wonder what the point was in this experiment. However the Canadian team believe that it could lead to a better understanding of how we process numbers and the genetics behind dyscalculia — a learning disability that affects a person’s ability to count and do basic arithmetic.
“The obvious next step is to see how [the flies'] neuro-architecture has changed,” said geneticist Tristan Long, of Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University. He also added that far more research is needed in order to make complete sense of the team’s results. This will mean comparing the genetic make-up of the evolved fruit fly to that of a standard test fly in order to pinpoint the mutation.
But how, I hear you say, did the team actually teach the flies to count? Well, the team of geneticists from Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada and the University of California repeatedly subjected test flies to a 20-minute mathematics training session. This saw the insects exposed to two, three or four flashes of light, with two or four flashes coinciding with a shake of the container the flies were kept in. “Following a pause, the flies were again subjected to the flashing light, however none prepared themselves for a repeat of the shake since they could not discern a difference between two, three or four flashes. That is, until the key 40th generation of descendants were put to the test.”
The team believe this proves that mental arithmetic are ancient constructs and that other animals can be taught to count. Interestingly, the fruit fly has been used as a popular experimental tool for geneticists since the early 1900s, but this is the first example of the test subject gaining the skills other than through natural evolution.
Hopefully this doesn’t lead to a Rise of the Planet of the Flies situation…