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Lord of the Flies: A tiny fly leads UW geneticist Barry Ganetzky to fruitful discoveries

Barry Ganetzky perches at an old microscope, a delicate feather-tipped probe in his hand. He firmly raps an upended glass vial of fruit flies to shake its anesthetized occupants onto a plate and peers at them through the eyepieces.

It’s clear he has done this thousands of times. With a few quick flicks, the feather deftly flips and sorts tiny fly bodies into neat piles, then sweeps them into newly tagged tubes. Then he’s on to the next vial from the packed rack: flip, sort, screen, and tag — picking out differences invisible to an untrained eye.

Their size belies the magnitude of their influence: with these flies, Ganetzky, a geneticist and Steenbock Professor of Biological Sciences at UW–Madison, has improved the understanding of human conditions ranging from cardiac failures in young athletes to aging brains.

And yet, he did not set out with these goals in mind. Unlike clinical or translational research, where the direct intent is to improve health care, basic research such as Ganetzky’s aims simply to gain knowledge of the world and how it works, including the biology of the creatures living in it.

It is also the type of research so often lampooned by politicians as an example of wasteful government spending — who cares why a sleeping fly’s legs twitch? But the answer to that question has helped to explain how numerous drugs hurt the patients they were supposed to help and has permanently affected the pharmaceutical development process.

Ganetzky’s unassuming laboratory is modest compared to the rooms full of gleaming equipment just steps away in the Genetics Biotechnology Center on the UW campus. But don’t let appearances fool you. Like the flies they work on, Ganetzky and his lab team are giants in the world of science.

Please read the rest of the story here on the On Wisconsin magazine website.