Researchers from the Developmental Biology group in the department are using the fruit fly to help understand aspects of human metabolism, including why pregnant women suffer from bloating and constipation, and even the link between a low calorie diet and longevity.
Although scientists have known for some time that there are as many as 500 million nerve cells in our gut, the sheer complexity that this presents means that little is known about the different types of nerve cell and their functions.
Now, researchers led by Dr Irene Miguel-Aliaga, with funding from the Wellcome Trust and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, have used the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, to investigate the function of these intestinal neurons. The fly has simpler versions of our nervous and digestive systems, which lend it to genetic manipulation. Their findings are published today in the journal Cell Metabolism.
"We reasoned that what comes out of the gut may be able to tell us about what is going on inside," explains Dr Miguel-Aliaga. "So, we devised a method to extract information about several metabolic features from the flies' faecal deposits - which are actually rather pretty and don't smell bad. Then we turned specific neurons on and off and examined what came out."
Dr Miguel-Aliaga and colleagues found that these intestinal neurons have very important and specialised functions, such as regulating appetite or adjusting intestinal water balance during reproduction. "Our research suggests that in addition to paying attention to what we eat, which has been the focus of longevity research, we may also have to consider what our body does with the food and what goes on in our guts."