Fruit flies drawn to the sweet smell of youth

February 9, 2012
Fruit Fly
Fruit Fly. Credit: UCSD

Aging takes its toll on sex appeal and now an international team of researchers led by Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Michigan find that in fruit flies, at least, it even diminishes the come-hither effect of the chemicals of love – pheromones.

"This is new because we have direct evidence that the pheromones produced at these different ages affect sexual attractiveness differently," said Tsung-Han Kuo, a graduate student in the department of molecular and human genetics and the Huffington Center on Aging at BCM. Kuo is first author of the report that appears online in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

Pheromones are chemicals produced by an organism to communicate or attract another. In this case, Drosophila melanogaster or produce chemicals called cuticular hydrocarbons. Special mass spectrometry studies that looked in detail at the composition and level of production of these hydrocarbons showed that they differed between the sexes, but more important, they changed with age.

"In fact, cuticular hydrocarbon production may be an indicator of the insect's health and fertility," said Kuo. Reproduction is one of the major activities of the short-lived insects, and they enhance the possibility of passing on their genes through the production of these pheromones. Unfortunately, the alluring effect of the chemicals wanes with age.

"The results were remarkably consistent across different strains of flies," said Dr. Scott Pletcher, now of the University of Michigan, and Kuo's initial mentor at BCM.

Kuo, Pletcher and Dr. Herman A. Dierick, assistant professor of molecular and human genetics at BCM, then determined how the pheromones produced at different ages affected the attractiveness of the fruit flies.

Using a specially designed holding cell, Kuo introduced a male fly into a chamber that contained two females – a young fly and an old fly. Video of the encounter showed that the male was much more attracted to the young fly.

To eliminate physical appearance from the equation, he then conducted the experiment in the dark. The males still courted the young females more vigorously. When the scientists washed the pheromones off the females' bodies, the males could no longer tell a difference between young and old.

"In the last analysis, we took the pheromone from the young and old flies and put it on flies that do not produce pheromones," said Kuo. "The flies were identical in every way but the males still preferred the flies with the 'younger' ."

"We know that aging is conserved across species," said Pletcher. "We want to examine the exciting possibility that the mechanisms underlying attractiveness are also conserved across species."

Explore further: Scientists study fighting flies

More information: , DOI:10.1242/jeb.064980

Related Stories

Scientists study fighting flies

August 16, 2006

U.S. researchers say they have conducted the first comprehensive molecular analysis of aggressive behavior in a laboratory species.

Unique pheromone detection system uncovered

June 26, 2008

Researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center have overturned the current theory of how a pheromone works at the molecular level to trigger behavior in fruit flies.

Flies, too, feel the influence of their peers, studies find

September 11, 2008

We all know that people can be influenced in complex ways by their peers. But two new studies in the September 11th issue of Current Biology, a Cell Press publication, reveal that the same can also be said of fruit flies.

Absent pheromones turn flies into lusty Lotharios

October 14, 2009

( -- When Professor Joel Levine's team genetically tweaked fruit flies so that they didn't produce certain pheromones, they triggered a sexual tsunami in their University of Toronto Mississauga laboratory. In ...

Researchers discover fruit fly aphrodisiac

September 29, 2011

( -- People, mostly of the male persuasion, have been searching the world for a true aphrodisiac for pretty much all of recorded history, unfortunately, the search has been mostly fruitless, which makes this latest ...

Recommended for you

Trade in invasive plants is blossoming

October 3, 2015

Every day, hundreds of different plant species—many of them listed as invasive—are traded online worldwide on auction platforms. This exacerbates the problem of uncontrollable biological invasions.

Ancestral background can be determined by fingerprints

September 28, 2015

A proof-of-concept study finds that it is possible to identify an individual's ancestral background based on his or her fingerprint characteristics – a discovery with significant applications for law enforcement and anthropological ...

Bat species found to have tongue pump to pull in nectar

September 28, 2015

(—A trio of researchers affiliated with the University of Ulm in Germany and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama has found that one species of bat has a method of collecting nectar that has never ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.