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"Fer-Mental State" -- The Discovery Files

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Scientists at the University of Washington have found that it is the smell of fermentation that draws fruit flies to food, utilizing their antennae to detect the odors.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

They have the brain of a fruit fly.

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files--new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

(Sound effect: cartoon fruit fly) As fruit flies crash your summer parties, you can thank their efficient little brains for pinpointing the position of your pinot grigio. (Sound effect: plop!) Now scientists at the University of Washington have found what's actually happening to make those free-flying fruit fly searches so 'fruitful.'

The team set up a 3-foot-long wind tunnel equipped with an automated tracking system. They released smells attractive to fruit flies and followed some 50,000 trajectories of fruit flies on a mission: To find fermented fruit.

They found the searches could be described as a simple algorithm of three reflexes. One: a surge forward when the scent is strongest. Two: Casting about when the whiff of scent is lost. Three: And this one was a surprise--using visual clues. When the flies sensed an attractive odor, they began to use their eyes to look for contrasting shapes that might be fruit. Without an attractive odor, they ignored such shapes a sophisticated interaction between the senses. And part of how fruit flies do so much with their poppy seed-sized brains.

The researchers say as we quantify more fly behaviors, we could discover better ways to control robotic systems of all kinds.

(Sound effect: cartoon fruit fly) Knowing this about fruit flies it's gonna be a lot harder to (Sound effect: slap!) (Sound effect: buzzing ends) swat one.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research--brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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