A fruit fly walks into a bar ...
A male fly courts a virgin female fly.
March 15th, 2012
02:59 PM ET

A fruit fly walks into a bar ...

It sounds like the premise of a "Far Side" comic: A fruit fly with an insatiable sexual appetite is no good with women and looks for respite at the bottom of a bottle.

But revelations about those puny nuisances that have been annoying your oranges all week didn’t come from Gary Larson, but from a group of researchers at the Heberlein lab at the University of California, San Francisco.

Galit Shohat-Ophir, the team’s lead researcher, and her colleagues discovered that the more a male fruit fly’s sexual advances are rejected, the more likely the fly will turn to alcohol as a consolation.

The findings, which they published in the journal Science, were the culmination of years of research on the “reward” pathway in the brain, which is linked to addiction.

“A reward is a kind of stimulus that reinforces behavior, in that it increases the chance that the behavior will occur again,” Shohat-Ophir told CNN Light Years. “Usually, it’s pleasure-related effects.”

Flies that weren’t deprived of doing the deed had higher levels of a neurotransmitter called NPF, she said, and they consumed less alcohol-spiked food as a result.

The brain’s reward systems are key to reinforcing behavior necessary for survival, including sex. Mating increases NPF levels, but when the flies hit a dry spell, the sex-deprived - and thus NPF-deficient - reward-seekers will turn to alcohol to stimulate a similar cognitive response.

But while Shohat-Ophir and her team weren’t exactly able to persuade their female subjects to put out, they did successfully manipulate the males’ consumption of ethanol-sodden food by directly regulating NPF levels.

“We were interested in trying to get into the molecular mechanisms of what makes social interaction rewarding for animals,” Shohat-Ophir said. “And substance abuse is thought to use the same neuromechanisms as natural rewards.”

In fact, the old soaks weren’t even all that particular about the quality of the food they were eating. Apparently, even the animal kingdom has its junkies.

“Flies exhibit complex addiction-like behaviors, including ... a preference for consuming ethanol-containing food, even if made unpalatable,” the researchers wrote in Science.

Pinpointing the exact reason for the flies’ alcoholic inclinations meant the subjects had to be split up into various control groups. The researchers looked at the effect that group housing had on the flies, for example, or whether there was a preference for virgins over females that had mated before.

But the award for the most unsavory experiment went to the decapitation of female subjects to ensure that males were deprived sexually but not exposed to the social experience of rejection. (Males will court a headless female, but their attempts rarely end in sex.)

These males also demonstrated an “enhanced ethanol preference,” confirming that it is a lack of sex in general, not the stigma of striking out with potential mating partners, that sends them tippling.

And once their confidence has been shattered, it takes a lot to get it back.

“This rejection behavior leads to a memory formation within the brain,” Shohat-Ophir said. “Males that have been rejected have a lower courtship behavior the next time they encounter females.”

But to be fair, the laboratory settings weren’t exactly conducive to lovemaking. Typically, two flies are put into a stuffy, brightly lit space with cameras recording their every move. The male will then attempt to court the female by serenading her with a love song played on his wing, tapping her abdomen and even gently caressing her genitalia with his proboscis, an organ that has smell and taste functions.

Even then, there’s no guarantee a female will consent. That kind of pressure would make any man want to pour himself a drink.

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Filed under: Discoveries • On Earth
soundoff (76 Responses)
  1. bl4ck0utsUn

    From what I understand from this article, we can take it that $e X cures addiction, particularly alcoholism in males. Thus rehab, housing, and counceling will not be necessary, just willing headless women! Finally a commodity worth exporting from the Middle East! LMAO

    March 15, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
  2. Primus

    I have two comment/questions concerning this story:
    1) Has the SPCA become involved regarding the deprivation? If not, why not?
    2) If alcohol dependencies have been created, is a twelve-step program being initiated? If not, why nol?

    March 15, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
  3. marty

    Overheard in a singles insect bar: "Don't give me that old 'I just pupated and have just 24 hours to live' line !

    March 15, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
  4. marty

    Do the ugly flies look better around closing time ?

    March 15, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
  5. Harvey Wallbanger

    Now we know where the term 'bar flies' comes from. I bet the same will hold true for lounge lizards.

    March 15, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
  6. gexter

    This is new News?

    March 15, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
  7. Burbank

    Now we will have to try an experiment to see if unmated bar flies prefer green beer on St. Patty's, and if so, does it give them the luck of the Irish with the ladies?

    March 15, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
  8. Burbank

    Help me! Help meeeee!

    March 15, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
  9. wavejump1100

    they should give the flies alcohol before they try to mate it will help loosen them up

    March 15, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
  10. Sunny

    Hmmm, I have to admit that I was 'involved' with the Lord of the Flies for awhile.

    March 15, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
  11. carol

    Now you've done it! Can't I like good single malt without it being blamed on my living the celibate life?

    March 15, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
    • Burbank

      Candy is dandy but... Actually if the guys see you drinking, they are more likely to approach, it implies you might be easier to score with.

      March 15, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
  12. Burbank

    I wonder if that applies to butterflies? I've watched Skipper males, those little tiny butterflies that look like minature jet planes when they are resting, try to mate with a dead leaf on the ground. The females are beige colored like dead leaves. If it's anything like flies, I guess this male hadn't experienced much rejection before so he was still ready to go!

    There are also butterflies that don't visit flowers, they prefer fallen fruit, and if it's rotten they get drunk and won't/can't fly away very well if you approach them. I guess just about any animal can get a taste for alcohol.

    March 15, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
  13. Burbank

    Now we know why we call people that inhabit bars on a daily basis bar flies.

    March 15, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
  14. jim

    this is too funny to read, make sure the male fly has a condom you would not want him to get a std do you?

    March 15, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
  15. Deano

    Ill drink to that!!!

    March 15, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
  16. Al Gore

    That fly sounds just like me!!

    March 15, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
  17. icy

    how much did this study cost us ?

    March 15, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
    • dave

      none, you idiot.

      March 15, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
      • RF Burns

        Somebody had to pay for it, you idiot.

        March 15, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
  18. steve

    why use freakin flies..why not use animals genetically similar to humans like apes, monkeys etc. are we now suppose to believe that the flies behaviour might mirror in the slightest context human behavior based on this experiment? how does be-heading female flies help with anything..Jeez..so much for PhD..figured it would be a waste of my time despite being told so many times to go for it.

    March 15, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • Burbank

      Lots of bugs will mate with something beheaded, that's not the business end. In fact some bugs can still mate without their heads attached, the male mantis is a good example. If the female gets hungry and there is no prey within easy reach, sometimes she decides to start eating him while he is mating her. She starts with the head since that's easiest to reach. He goes right on mating without it!

      March 15, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
  19. Kevin

    Sounds a lot like Rush Limbaugh!

    March 15, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  20. Kristian J

    @ 111:11, I'm glad my frothing rage comes across in text format... and I am intoxicated.

    That's 2 for 2. Well played.

    March 15, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • Kristian J

      Wait. That's one 1 too many. Damn you 11:11.
      Rage. Growing...

      March 15, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  21. sdsurfn

    They should give 'em some ecstasy.

    March 15, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  22. cpc65

    Now do a study where the female fly flirts with the male fly to get free drinks and then tells him she just got an urgent call from her mother and has to leave.

    March 15, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  23. cpc65

    I really miss The Far Side.

    March 15, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • Kristian J

      Truer words have not been spoken.

      March 15, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • dougo

      I have the ENTIRE Far Side Collection...keep some on my desk at work for clients to browse through!

      March 15, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • dougo

      I have the entire Far Side Collection....I keep some on my desk at work for clients to browse through
      Love it!!

      March 15, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
    • Ail

      Mrs. Carle – Christina & Bobby your boys are beautiful, I've eneoyjd watching the grow in Meridith's photos. They've brought a smile to my face everytime. Enjoy every day with them!

      August 1, 2012 at 8:53 am |
  24. doofus

    so... flies locked up with beheaded females and forced to make out tended to drink? BRILLIANT!

    March 15, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  25. JacMac

    Your tax dollars hard at work.

    March 15, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • MLew

      Is this research really using tax dollars, or are you just speculating?

      March 15, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • DumbJac

      You're not too bright Jac.......

      March 15, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
  26. Susan

    There must not be much news to write about this week.

    March 15, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  27. Belle Carillon

    zzzo zzzzat exzzzzplainzzz it

    March 15, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
  28. Prune balls

    Excellent, in depth story!
    coming up..... Did you know? Dirt is dirty? Rain is wet?

    March 15, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • Mike

      Actually most dirt isn't dirty unless Monsanto got it's hands on it.

      March 16, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
      • Maru

        That is a huge compliment! They are one of my ftiorvae magazines. Hope it brings a great new crop of simple-living, creative and hip gardeners your way.

        April 6, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  29. jj

    Science is so bizarre.

    March 15, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  30. reddog9500

    So that explains why I drink so much. And I thought it was to forget.

    March 15, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  31. Wombly

    Fly me to the moon...

    March 15, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  32. zsabre2

    I knew we could somehow blame alcoholism on women.

    March 15, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  33. phneutral

    Sounds like a new bar pickup line in the making. Hey Baby!......

    March 15, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  34. Edward

    This explains everything.

    March 15, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  35. Kristian J

    I can always count on this generation of republican know-nothings to politicize an article on scientific research. They are so against science/arts and academia i'm surprised they still drive cars. If you have such an aversion to science, stop reaping the benefits and go live in the woods.

    March 15, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • Worf

      You are an moron.

      March 15, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
      • Kristian J

        Stick to the Holodeck, Worf. The adults are talking.

        Btw, I am not 'an' moron
        but since the criticism comes from an esteemed star fleet Lieutenant perhaps i should reevaluate myself.

        Maybe i an... maybe i an.

        March 15, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
      • MyTake

        Such an excellent retort, so insightful and meaning. ;-) You do realize that you are helping make the poster point. LOL. Of course those anti-science/anti-intellectual/anti-education folks who want to make hay over just about any subject are the ones to which we should listen. It only makes sense ... NOT

        March 15, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • NorCalMojo

      It may be time to look in the mirror, you've become exactly what you hate.

      March 15, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • Kate

      Ummmm I'm a republican and also hold a degree in geology. Scientist does not always = liberal, believe it or not. Also, this article had nothing whatsoever to do with politics so you should probably go find a different forum to ramble in.

      March 15, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
  36. clearfog

    A whole new meaning to 'bar flies.'

    March 15, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  37. Carolus Linnaeus

    Galit Shohat-Ophir is obviously the proud recipient of Obama Stimulus research money. Any dope in entomolgy knows that Drosophila melanogaster (fruit flies) are attracted to alcohols because they are a byproduct of fermentation. The sweet smell of alcohol attracts the flies because they know that where there is alcohol there is sugar, and they need sugar to cultivate their larvae.

    Leave an open beer bottle with just a thin film of beer in the bottom of the bottle. If you have bananas in the house, there is strong likelihood that with a week or so you will have a colony of fruit flies developing at the bottom of the bottle. They are quite particular to Pale Ales in fact.

    One might expect such a study out of San Francisco. I might have preferred a duel between a female Black Widow and a Female Praying Mantis after both have mated...who would eat whom?

    -CL

    March 15, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • calmdown

      If you had taken the time to actually read the article, you would realize that the experiment used controls to ensure that the behavior they were studying exhibited a causal relationship. The only thing you've demonstrated is the ability to copy and paste articles from Wikipedia. Well done.

      March 15, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • DeeNYC

      ohhhh you got embarrased by calmdown. But it's true, you didn't read the article.

      March 15, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • Gobsmacked

      Geez, what an opportunistic swipe. I guess some people never put politics aside, even for a second.

      March 15, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  38. Dan

    they should get those flys some lsd

    March 15, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • Humant

      I found you in the magazine aictrle, too. I grew up on a farm with yearly gardens, and I have grown gardens in a lot of smaller plots as an adult. This year I want to dial it down to container gardening and see if less is more. Congratulations on your eight years! You must be doing something right and serving the needs of lots of folks way to go and to grow!

      April 5, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  39. Franklin

    I take it, this leads to a comparison to humans. Therefore, women are really the main cause of alcoholism in men. Finally, scientific proof.

    March 15, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • virtuallyme

      and vice versa

      March 15, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  40. Daggash

    Hahahahahaha. I feel the flies pain. Women can burst that ego real bad and lead you doing a lot of things. At least we are not a lone. Drink up Fly buddy!

    March 15, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  41. Charles Darwin

    Your tax dollars at work...

    March 15, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • James

      You might not complain if this lead to an effective treatment for addiction and lowered overall societal costs. It might actually end up saving taxpayers money. Funny how that research stuff works.

      March 15, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
      • Kim

        I doubt it, we will then need to provide treatment programs, drugs, housing, and who knows what else in the name of science and drunk bugs.

        March 15, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • calmdown

      You realize only a portion of research grants are supplied by the government, right? Of course not, because Obama is the devil and liberals are destroying America, and we're spening all of our hard earned money getting flies drunk.

      March 15, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
      • Sanifax

        Hey calm down....You an an idiot!!You are the devil!!!

        March 15, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
      • Gassan

        I will run this by my tech guy' because that is not my area of extrepise. At all! I did submit the podcast to iTunes and, as soon as they get it up and running, you will be able to listen to it straight from there, easy as pie.

        August 3, 2012 at 5:09 am |
    • clearfog

      And what about all that money wasted on the voyage of the Beagle. Please tell me that your name was meant to be sarcastic or that it was a cosmic coincidence.

      March 15, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • DeeNYC

      i'm sure you'd prefer our tax dollars to be used to go start wars.

      March 15, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • Kristian J

      Assuming you pay taxes... Perhaps the money would be better spent on drug wars and abstinence programs. Is that a better use of your hard earned money? You seem to be funding this research yourself. Sorry if you're not seeing a positive return on your investment.

      March 15, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
      • 11:11

        Wow Darwin, you make a comment that goes against the grain and the Obombots descend on you like fruit flies that have been rejected. LMAO! I can tell from their frothing rage they have become quite intoxicated too.

        March 15, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  42. mark2176

    do they have craiglist in the fly world

    March 15, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • Burbank

      You mean a bar flies seeking bar flies category?

      March 15, 2012 at 7:27 pm |

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