Can a fly be made to moonwalk?

April 5, 2014

Some people don’t seem to have any trouble walking backwards, some people can actually dance backwards, as is in the case of the late Michael Jackson, who made walking backwards famous with the Moonwalk. While walking backwards seems to be an easy task, it isn’t known how the mind works when it comes to telling us to walk backwards. However, we have now been given an insight into this, thanks to scientists who investigated ways to forcibly make flies walk backwards by interfering with different neurons in the brain. So can a fly do the moonwalk? It appears that the answer is, yes – well, at least they can walk backwards.

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 7.20.39 PM[Image Source: Youtube]

Geneticists inserted a temperature-controlled switch into 3500 strains of flies, with each turning on random networks of neurons whenever the flies entered an incubator. Scientists found that one batch of the fruit flies would start to walk backwards whenever they came across warmth, forcing the fly to “moonwalk.”

It seems that the walking behaviour of the flies is down to two neurons. One of these is in the brain and linked connections to the ventral nerve cord, the equivalent to a spine in the fly. Unlike what you would expect this isn’t at the back, but instead running along the belly of the fruit fly. The second neuron was located at the end of the nerve cord and sent out messages to the brain, which in turn acted along the lines of throwing a car into reverse; when it was turned on, it sent signals to the fly to walk backwards.

Apparently the scientists worked out that the first neuron, the one found in the brain, acted as a command centre which responded to certain environmental cues. The second of the neurons then acted like a brake of a car when it came to walking forwards. The fly turned on its brakes whenever it came across flooring that was cold. The scientists could therefore use the two neurons as a place to start and then go on to trace the links to the fly’s sensory neurons when it came to smell, touch and sight, which controls the “moonwalking.”