Vincent Besnault—Getty Images
By Alice Park
June 18, 2015

Flies, it turns out, sleep about as much as young children do. Males need about 12 hours a day, while females can do with about 10 hours. To find out which genes might be responsible for guiding how much slumber flies get a night, Kyunghee Koh did a massive experiment that you can only do with fruit flies.

She and her team at Thomas Jefferson University reported in the journal Current Biology that they took 3,000 flies, introduced random mutations in them and then monitored how well they slept. That allowed them to zero in on the genes that most directly affected slumber, and they found one, taranis, that may become an important target for sleep-related research even in people.

Flies with abnormal forms of taranis only get about 25% of their daily sleep; removing the gene keeps the flies buzzing almost non stop.

Koh’s team found that taranis works with a couple of other proteins to balance sleeping and waking. Normally, taranis and cyclin A pair up to keep the activity of another enzyme down. That enzyme generally keeps the flies awake. So when all three are working in concert, taranis and cyclin A shut down the enzyme so flies can get 10 to 12 hours of sleep. But when taranis is mutated, it doesn’t do its job as well, and the enzyme keeps the flies alert and unable to sleep.

It turns out that taranis has a related gene in mammals that may work in similar ways. The gene typically controls the way cells divide, “We don’t know yet whether these genes have a role in sleep in mammals or humans, but our hope is that somehow these genes we find in flies may have similar roles in people, and might ultimately give us some novel drug targets to help us sleep better,” says Koh.

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