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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Palin and Fruit Flies

Sarah Palin, the Republican nominee for Vice President in a recent speech attacked scientific research into fruit flies. She was discussing earmarks which are congressional mandates to spend money on specific projects. McCain tried to make a big deal of earmarks during the first Debate with Obama.

Palin gave the following example of an earmark that she objected to:


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," Palin said. "Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.


The video below shows the relevant part of the speech.



My first reaction to this was that she was talking about research into Drosophila melanogaster. I remember studying Drosphlia in high school biology classes. My recollection was that Drosphlia were important important models in studying the basics of genetics. In particular I remembered that they had just four chromosomes that were very large which made the study of Drosophlia genetics easier that other animals. I expected that Palin was attacking basic "blue sky" research and (possibly) advocating targeted applied research, and so I was preparing to write on the importance of basic (non-targeted) research.

One of the areas of Drosophlia research that I found particularly interesting was the discovery of selector genes that control complex processes, for example in the development of legs and wings in Drosophlia. As a group these selector genes are called Hoc genes. Many other animals, including mammals, have Hox genes, but what was particularly surprising was the similarity between the Hox genes in very different animals. Hox genes in mice are so similar to those in Drosophlia that they still can produce legs when inserted into the insects! For more details on these issues see this site. This type of research is interesting and valuable in itself irrespective of any practical developments flowing from it. An interest in ideas for their own sake is an important part of being human. Basic research though can lead to applied research projects as I found when reading sites here and here .

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Palin's flip comment probably had nothing to do with Drosophlia, but to applied agricultural research on another type of fly.



The only earmark that involves fruit flies and France is research into the olive fruit fly (Bactrocera oleae). (Note is is in a different genus to Drosophlia melanogaster). This fruit fly arrived in California in 1998. It has become a serious pest and threat to the Californian olive industry. This then is very applied, agricultural research, of significant economic value to the US.

Palin's comment that the earmark money went to research in "Paris, France" is significant. She was probably trying to make the point that US money was being sent to France to solve a French problem. The reality is quite different. The money went to a US Department of Agriculture (USDA) research facility (actually at Montpellier) in France. It is important to study invasive animals and plants in their natural environment in order to determine appropriate methods of control. To this end USDA has research facilities in many countries including Australia, where I live. One method of control is to find natural enemies of B oleae and about 6 have been discovered. The next step is to make sure that predators of B oleae don't attack any other insects. For details see this site .

I originally set out to make the point that anyone whose science education was so poor that they did not recognise fruit flies as very important models for basic study, is unfit for public office. In reality Palin has attacked research that is very practical, and carried out in an appropriate location.

What is it with the right and their hatred of science. The only national newspaper in Australia (the Australian) has a similar fixation. Tim Lambert in his blog Deltoid is up to 22 in his series of posts called The Australian's War on Science. The Australian's fixation is with Climate Change Denialism, which is another potential post on the absurdities of Palinism. As an Alaskan, Palin realises that the Arctic is warming, but she denies that the cause is Anthropogenic.

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