Tiny Model Organisms Offer Big Insight for Researching Disease

Fruit flies are far more than a kitchen nuisance. Learn how the pests and other tiny critters help provide major clues to human disease.

1:02 PM

Author | Kevin Joy


On the surface, fruit flies, roundworms and yeast don't seem to have much to do with fighting disease.

MORE FROM THE LAB: Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

Most people view the former two items as pests — and the latter merely the reason bread rises or beer ferments.

All three, however, have major utility as model organisms for scientific research.

That's because each one offers distinct similarities to the human condition, which allows researchers at University of Michigan and across the globe to study basic biological processes shaping health and disease. They also have very fast life cycles, which makes studying effects across generations much more efficient than in people.

The lowly fruit fly, for example, has almost 60 percent of the genes found in humans. One U-M team has used them to study the overgrowth of neurons associated with Down syndrome.

SEE ALSO: Harnessing the Power of Nanoparticles to Fight Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

The humble yeast, a single-cell organism, is providing new insights into neurodegeneration and cancer — because these illnesses are caused by the disruption of basic cell processes that are also found in these simple creatures.

And the millimeter-long roundworm, despite its tiny size and nervous system, responds to its natural environment much the same way people do. One U-M lab has discovered an ultra-efficient light receptor in the worms that has the potential to help develop new scientific tools or even better sunscreen.

Learn more about the power of these organisms in the video above.

More Articles About: Lab Report Basic Science and Laboratory Research Cancer Research All Research Topics
Health Lab word mark overlaying blue cells
Health Lab

Explore a variety of healthcare news & stories by visiting the Health Lab home page for more articles.

Media Contact Public Relations

Department of Communication at Michigan Medicine

[email protected]


Stay Informed

Want top health & research news weekly? Sign up for Health Lab’s newsletters today!

Featured News & Stories microscope cells glioma
Health Lab
Researchers circumvent radiation resistance in subtype of brain tumors
University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center researchers find ZMYND8 gene plays a critical role in conferring radiation resistance on brain tumors with IDH1 mutation.
cell slides under microscope
Health Lab
P53 could be key to therapies for salivary gland cancer
Mouse models show that activating a non-mutated form of the gene could lead to developing therapies for this deadly form of cancer. 
Blue green cell microscopic amino
Health Lab
Dietary change starves cancer cells, overcoming treatment resistance
A new study in cells and mice from the University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center has found that a low-protein diet and a specific reduction in amino acids can improve treatment for colon cancer.
A model demonstrating how this type of novel drug is absorbed through the lymphatic system.
Health Lab
New drug candidate uses novel absorption method to target cancer cells in mice
By using the lymphatic system as a storage reservoir, researchers found they could optimize drug concentrations to simultaneously target two molecular signaling pathways responsible for cancer growth.
liver cancer cells microscopic cells
Health Lab
Researchers identify a hormone from fat cells that reprogram the liver microenvironment and restrain tumor growth in mice
Molecular changes in nonalcoholic fatty liver disease could serve as potential therapeutic targets to halt the cells’ progression to liver cancer.
microscopic nanoparticle colorful cellular inhibitor
Health Lab
Outsmarting brain cancer
The approach, studied in mice, overcomes the blood brain barrier and breaks the shield tumors build against the immune response.