Fruit flies are a key species in biological research, at the heart of many important discoveries. More than just a useful model organism, a recent study reveals an extraordinary ability: they can use their sense of smell to detect human cancer cells. Healthy and cancerous cells produce distinct sets of molecules, and this difference is recognised by the highly sensitive odour receptors in the flies’ antennae. To demonstrate this, researchers developed an ingenious technique: in the set-up pictured, a fly is placed on the podium and receives cell odours from the tube on the left, while the microscope above records the activity of neurons in the antennae. They found that the response pattern was reliably different, depending on whether flies were exposed to cells from healthy tissue or from tumours, thus opening up the possibility of one day using insect odour receptors as new tools for diagnosis.
Written by Emmanuelle Briolat
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