Building labs with flies

EMBL alumna Isabel Palacios on a visit to Uganda. PHOTO: Isabel Palacios


Flies can do a lot for science, both inside and outside the lab. EMBL alumna Isabel Palacios explains how

Isabel Palacios studies fruit flies. Not because she has any particular interest in flies themselves, but because they help her answer fundamental questions about animal development. Most animals start life as a single, roughly spherical cell. Somehow the symmetry of that cell gets lost and you end up with an animal that has a distinct head and tail, front and back. The curious thing is that even in that first cell – even before it’s fertilised – microscopic cellular machinery is working to create subtle asymmetries that prepare the cell for development. Palacios, an EMBL alumna and group leader at the University of Cambridge, wants to understand how this happens.

But that’s not the only ambition she has for her flies. As a founder of the DrosAfrica project, she believes the fruit fly, Drosophila, can play an important role in developing the research infrastructure of an entire continent, helping African scientists undertake high-impact projects and form collaborations around the world. The aim of the project is to teach scientists how to use the fly as a model system for studying human disease, ultimately creating an interconnected community of Drosophila researchers in Africa. This involves organising local workshops to train scientists, and providing basic equipment such as microscopes and antibodies.

I find it the most satisfying project I have

“People who don’t know about the fly ask: ‘How could it help with African research?’” says Palacios. “But actually there are a lot of questions you can answer.” Drosophila has long been used in genetic studies and allows researchers to gain insight into many types of human disease, including cancer, diabetes, and neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. Flies can also be used in the study of host-pathogen interactions, including infection by viruses or Plasmodium – the organism that causes malaria. They therefore have a broad range of uses in basic biomedical research.

The other thing about fruit flies – as some of us have had the misfortune to discover outside the lab – is that they reproduce rapidly, without human assistance. This means you can produce adequate numbers at low cost, and very little specialist equipment is required to look after them. There are also many companies and university departments offering gene editing services for Drosophila, so it’s easy, fast, and inexpensive to obtain flies with the genes you want to study. Palacios points out that the community is very open and willing to share, so if there’s a particular type of fly that you’d like to research, there will often be someone in another part of the world who can send it to you, and the cost of shipping is very low. All these things make Drosophila an ideal organism to work with on a limited budget.

Suddenly you could do competitive science using the fly

Palacios compares the situation in Africa to that of Spain forty years ago, when the country underwent a period of rapid development. It was at this time that Antonio García-Bellido, a developmental biologist, began training a few Drosophila researchers who went on to train others, creating a large community of fly researchers in Spain. Some also went abroad to start their own research groups. “Suddenly you could do competitive science using the fly, because it’s very inexpensive and very easy to learn,” says Palacios. “In terms of research, it helped put Spain in the international picture.”

It was against this background that Palacios grew up. At the time, Madrid was the only university in Spain that offered any courses in molecular biology, so she initially enrolled for a general biology degree at the University of La Laguna in Tenerife. “But,” she says, “any time they touched on a more cell biological aspect, that was what really interested me.” After the first year, she decided to make the move to Madrid. “Financially, it was quite a stretch for my parents,” she explains. “But once I was there, I loved it. I knew that this was what I wanted to do.”

She went on to study for a PhD at EMBL in Heidelberg. “I applied thinking there’s no way they’ll invite me there, but they did, and then there’s no way they’ll offer me a place, but they did. I’d already started a PhD in Madrid, but my supervisor, Juan Ortín, said ‘Take this chance, it’s a really good one,’ so that’s where I went,” she says, laughing. “Suddenly I was at one of the best molecular biology institutes in Europe! I couldn’t believe my luck and I’ve been lucky ever since.”

Maybe one day we could even form an organisation of several African countries working together

Palacios explains that the idea for DrosAfrica came from a chance meeting between one of her colleagues, Lucia Prieto Godino, and Sadiq Yusuf, a professor from Kampala International University (KIU) in Uganda. Godino and Yusuf decided to organise a workshop at KIU that would teach Yusuf and his students the skills needed to work with Drosophila. Palacios was invited to lead some of the sessions at the workshop. “It was clear that these scientists had a great desire for knowledge and wanted to do good research,” she says, “but they didn’t have the money or the facilities.” Palacios and her colleagues realised that Drosophila could help these researchers – and others in Africa – achieve their goals.

Since then, they’ve organised several workshops in Uganda and Kenya, and more are planned in Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt. Three years into the project, they’re seeing attendees from the workshops setting up fly labs at their own institutions. They’ve had master’s students successfully defend their theses on Drosophila and there are PhD students who will soon be doing the same. A network of scientists from several African countries is also developing. They’ve started organising their own workshops, and Palacios hopes they’ll soon be running their labs and applying for grants independently.

Another idea she’s considering is the establishment of an institute for basic biomedical research in Uganda, so instead of arranging workshops in several countries, scientists could come to a central hub where they would develop the skills needed to work with inexpensive model systems like Drosophila. Over time, their research could expand to other model systems and a broader range of cell biological techniques. “But it has to be from the inside,” she says, “with scientists talking to their governments and trying to get that kind of research institute going. Maybe one day we could even form an organisation of several African countries working together, similar to EMBL in Europe.”

When I ask her about some of the difficulties she’s faced with the project, she answers without hesitation. “The challenges are always time and funds. For most of us, this is not our main job and we also need to focus on the other aspects of being a scientist – publishing papers and getting grants,” she explains. “But with DrosAfrica, what you put in and what you get out is a lot more balanced than it usually is in science. I find it the most satisfying project I have.”