With the help of inebriated fruit flies, scientists have discovered an entire network of genes the tiny creatures share with humans that help explain why some people tolerate alcohol better than others and may one day lead to a cure for alcoholism. Their findings also yield more information about the negative side effects of excessive drinking, like liver damage. The study appears in the October issue of the Genetics.

To make this discovery, the researchers first measured the amount of time it took for the fruit flies to lose postural control after exposure to alcohol. At the same time, changes in the expression of all the flies' genes were recorded. Using statistical methods to identify genes that work together, the scientists were able to pinpoint specific genes that played a crucial role in adaptation relating to alcohol exposure.

Armed with this information about fruit flies, the scientists set out to determine if the same genes contribute to alcohol drinking habits in humans. Indeed they do: expression of the human counterpart of a critical gene in fruit flies could be directly tied to alcohol consumption in humans.

"Translational studies, like this one, in which discoveries from model organisms can be applied to insights in human biology, can make us understand the balance between nature and nurture, why we behave the way we do, for better or worse, and what makes us tick," said Robert
Anholt, a Professor of Biology and Genetics at North Carolina State University, one of the senior scientists involved in the work.

"From a scientific point-of-view, research like this is almost intoxicating," said Mark Johnston, Editor-in-Chief of the journal GENETICS. "We've known for a while now that genetics played a role in alcohol consumption, but now, we actually know some of the genes that are
involved. As a result of this work, we have a potential drug target for curing this insidious condition."

Citation: Tatiana V. Morozova, Julien F. Ayroles, Katherine W. Jordan, Laura H. Duncan, Mary Anna Carbone, Richard F. Lyman, Eric A. Stone, Diddahally R. Govindaraju, R. Curtis Ellison, Trudy F. C. Mackay, and Robert R. H. Anholt
Alcohol Sensitivity in Drosophila: Translational Potential of Systems Genetics Genetics 2009 183: 733–745