Turning Heads, Literally: How One UW Lab Is Producing High-Quality Fruit Fly Samples To Advance Research

If you ever find yourself in need of somebody who can process the head of a decapitated fruit fly – and make it look good – Tom Pier is your guy.

Pier is a research specialist for the Experimental Animal Pathology Laboratory (EAPL), one of the UW Carbone Cancer Center’s shared resources. EAPL provides histology services and helps researchers fully exploit the power of animal models to advance various forms of research.

While Pier is no stranger to mice and rodent tissue – a staple in basic research – he’s also become somewhat of the go-to guy for the processing of Drosophila samples.

“In other words, fruit flies,” he said.

Pier first encountered fruit fly processing while working with members of the Ganetzky lab. Barry Ganetzky, PhD, now an emeritus professor of genetics at UW-Madison, made a career out of fruit fly research, which can provide a unique window into human biology.

While EAPL primarily serves UW researchers, such as Ganetzky lab members, Pier and colleagues are happy to provide their services to anyone who requests them – near or far. That includes one satisfied customer on the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Stanislava Chtarbanova, PhD, happened to work as a postdoc in the Ganetzky lab before moving south, where she’s now an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alabama. As such, she was already familiar with EAPL’s work. So when she need samples processed to further her research into neurodegeneration, she knew where to turn.

“I chose to use the services from UW because of the high quality of processing and embedding they offer and their affordable rates,” Chtarbanova said. “Additionally, turnaround times are very reasonable, and we always have the option to have the samples processed in expedited way. This is important when we need results to meet grant application or publication deadlines.”

For Pier, the Drosophila processing begins with a special container known as a tissue cassette, which is filled with a handful of fly heads. With the help of a tissue processor, the cassette is dehydrated before being injected with paraffin. It’s a delicate procedure, especially when you consider that each fly head is about the size of a pinhead.

“With the fly heads, we need to run the processer on a shorter cycle because they are very small,” Pier said. “And if we over-process them, we can pretty much cook them down into nothing.”

After a short rest, the cassettes are opened and the fly heads are removed for the next stage of processing, which is even more delicate.

“We drop them carefully into a mold filled with molten paraffin,” Pier said. “From there, we have to get the magnifying glass out and a dissecting needle so that we can turn the heads into the orientation that the client wants them in.”

From there, samples can be sectioned, or split into individual slides to be examined later under a microscope. But it’s the head placement that has won rave reviews from Chtarbanova.

“This is essential for our analysis, as most of the time we look at a specific region, which is the mid-brain,” she said. “The facility has really been doing a fantastic job with that, helping us generate reproducible results and high-quality data.”

Fly head processing is just one of many services, however, offered by EAPL. If you’re curious about how EAPL can benefit your own research, head on over to their website. While EAPL is a UW Carbone shared resource, any researcher is welcome to reach out.

“We want to serve our Cancer Center members,” Pier said. “But we’re perfectly happy to do other things for other folks, too.”

Posted in EPL