Learning on the fly: Unlikely target for wound care found

What do a nursing home resident’s skin and a fruit fly’s exoskeleton have in common? At first glance, not much. But it turns out that both are essentially a mesh of macromolecules that share similar signaling traits.

Because of this similarity, fruit flies (or Drosophila, as researchers like to call them) may reveal clues to wound healing in humans — while also helping fuel new possible treatments. That’s according to a presentation made last month at the Genetics Society of America’s 54th Annual Drosophila Research Conference in Washington.

It turns out that fruit flies are an excellent model for dissecting skin repair at the cellular and molecular level, according to Rachel A. Patterson, from the University of California, San Diego.

“The genetics of drosophila is not as complicated as mammalian genetics, so it’s easier to attribute specific biological functions to individual genes,” she explained. During healing, molecular signals in both humans and fruit flies bind to receptors on the cells that line a wound, influencing the cell division, growth, and migration that restores the barrier.

Key to the researchers’ “clean puncture wounding” protocol was injecting trypsin, a member of a family of enzymes called serine proteases, which control cell-to-cell signaling. Trypsin activates genes involved in wound healing throughout the embryo, and it also amplifies the response in the affected cells, revealing new players in the choreography of healing.

“We took advantage of trypsin as a powerful wounding tool to pinpoint which genes are ‘turned on’ versus which genes are ‘turned off’ after wounding,” Patterson said.