In the summer of 1986, Thomas Kaufman was waiting in the lunch line at a research conference devoted to Drosophila—more commonly known as fruit flies. A fellow biologist informed him that the California Institute of Technology was interested in getting rid of its huge inventory of flies—insects that are used in scientific studies and distributed to researchers upon request.
“I said, ‘maybe we could move the stock to Indiana,’” says Kaufman, a biologist at Indiana University. When he returned to Bloomington a few days later, he asked a post-doc in his lab if she’d be interested in running a fly-stock center. She said she would.
Back at Caltech, the flies were ushered into tiny glass vials, placed in generously padded boxes, and sent on their way to the Hoosier state, courtesy of the U.S. Postal System.
“There were about 1,600 pure breeding lines at the time, different mutant strains, flies with different eye colors, bristles, wing shape, body color, and that sort of thing,” Kaufman tells me. There are now more than 50,000 mutant lines in the stock collection. The center sends out thousands of fly stocks each week to scientists all over the world.
It’s from that venerable and varied stock that Ellie Heckscher acquires her flies, or, more precisely, her maggots. Heckscher, an assistant professor of molecular genetics and cell biology at the University of Chicago, breeds flies and uses their larvae as models to study the neuronal basis of movement. It offers a gateway to understanding specific diseases in humans such as Lou Gehrig’s disease.