A dazzling otherworldly image posted to Twitter by biologist Ben Walsh gives us mere mortals a small window into just how intricate our world really is. An image set against a black backdrop and with majestic blue, orange, and yellow swirls looks like something seen from the Hubble Telescope. But wait, what’s that? They're really just fruit fly balls.
All in the name of research.
Walsh, a PhD student in the Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Behavior at the University of Liverpool, stained the testes of a dead fruit fly with fluorescent dye to highlight their structures. The image was then captured through a microscope with the camera on his iPhone – though he says he is looking to get a high-resolution photo soon. For now, the awe-inspiring Twitter photo shows how the fly’s testes “kinda look like a galaxy,” and if you’ve ever taken a quick gander through NASA’s photo gallery then you’re sure to agree.
The yellow structures make up the tissue walls of the testes. The blue clouds are sperm, Walsh told the publication, continuing that fruit flies have the longest sperm of any animals, but why such a lengthy structure still requires further research.
Walsh told IFLScience his team is interested in fruit flies because they are a "model species that we know a lot about, including how they produce bundles of sperm – a process known as spermatogenesis," allowing researchers to easily see problems in sperm production. They're also easy to keep in the lab, so bonus points for accessibility.
"Another cool thing about fruit flies is that they have some of the most diverse sperm in the animal kingdom. The very largest is Drosophila bifurca that have sperm which is almost 6 centimeters (2.4 inches) long – the largest known sperm in the animal kingdom!" explained Walsh.
Writing in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Walsh notes that biodiversity is threatened as global temperatures continue to rise, with potentially severe impacts on the fertility of animals, plants, and fungi. In some cases, this includes a risk of extinction from fertility loss. The psychedelically dyed fly gonads are part of this greater body of work aiming to determine thermally sensitive traits across species and to better quantify how to “buffer the extreme stress on these traits” – a critical priority in the face of a warming planet.
"High temperatures are known to impair fertility in a wide range of species," he said. "One of the most common ways this happens is through disrupting sperm production in males, but we don’t really know why sperm is so consistently sensitive to high temperatures. By examining sperm directly within the testes, we may be able to help reveal the exact point during which spermatogenesis is being compromised, which can help us answer these important questions."
[H/T: Live Science]