Public Release: 

Scientists fly in for maggot fest

University of Manchester

The University of Manchester is to play host to a major international conference... on maggots!

The Manchester Maggot Meeting will see delegates from across Europe, the United States, Japan and South America descend on the city to talk about their research on fruit-fly (Drosophila) larvae.

The three-day event has been organised by Dr Matthew Cobb, a lecturer in animal behaviour in the University's Faculty of Life Sciences whose interest lies in the maggots' sense of smell.

"Holding an international conference on fruit-fly maggots might seem like a strange idea but there are major scientific benefits to be had from studying these organisms," said Dr Cobb.

"Scientists have been studying fruit flies for 100 years and they have proven a very powerful tool in our current understanding of how genetics works.

"The first genes involved in biological clocks that help us know what time of day it is were discovered in fruit flies, as were the genes involved in the biological processes of learning and how organisms grow and develop from that initial single cell.

"The same basic genes that make a fly also make a human baby - the rules involved in this won researchers the Nobel Prize in 1995 - so there are huge practical applications here for understanding how humans work.

"But flies are relatively complex organisms - they can fly, they have large intricate eyes; in scientific terms they are more complicated than a star.

For this reason, says Dr Cobb, behavioural biologists have over the last 10 years started looking at maggots.

"Where humans have tens of millions of nerves in their noses, the fly has 1,200 but the maggot has just 21. Yet the principles of how the maggot is able to smell an odour are the same as for us.

"People from the world's leading labs will be coming to the meeting to discuss how the nerves detect odours and how the maggot's brain processes and acts upon this information.

"The emphasis is on behaviour - how the nerves and genes interact to influence activity and how behaviour changes over time. The only drawback to studying maggots is that you don't have long as they turn into flies in three days."

The event, which runs from April 11 to 13, is expected to attract more than 70 leading maggot experts - twice the number that attended the first conference held in Germany two years ago.

Delegates will also consider how the maggot's nervous system develops and what happens to the nerves as it develops into a pupae. They will also hear from a Chilean researcher who studies the larvae in their natural environment.

"By understanding the natural pressures placed on the maggots, such as what predators they have and what climates they live in, we can gain a greater insight into reasons for their behaviour.

"Research in this field is all part of the overall approach to understanding life and Drosophila larvae are an excellent means of learning about the fundamental processes common to all living organisms."


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