Protein Craze

A new set of taste neurons helps fruit flies eat the right type of food when they run low on proteins.


When animals run low on a certain nutrient, they change their behavior to seek out and feed on foods rich in that missing element. For example, fruit flies lacking sugar will look for and eat more sweet food; if they need proteins, they will instead favor yeast, flies’ principal source of proteins.

In fruit flies, certain neurons on the insects’ tongue (or proboscis) are dedicated only to taste. These cells are divided in groups specialized for a type of nutrient — for instance some of them only react to sugar. Taste neurons sense food and help coordinate how much and for how long the animals will feed. However, despite how important proteins are for flies, the neurons dedicated to tasting yeast had yet to be identified.

Here, Steck, Walker et al. report discovering a new set of taste neurons in fruit flies, which are activated by a unique combination of molecules present in yeast. Crucially, without these neurons being active, the insects can no longer adjust their diet to eat more yeast when they are deprived of proteins. The activity of these cells is also regulated by internal levels of nutrients derived from proteins.

The yeast-specific taste neurons are present in two areas on the fly’s proboscis, which is used like a straw when feeding. The two sets of cells have different roles in the consumption of yeast. The first group, which is located at the extremity of the proboscis, helps flies detect and start consuming the resource. The second group, which is on the inner surface of the proboscis, influences whether the insects keep feeding. If one of these groups of neurons is deactivated, flies continue to eat yeast as normal, showing that the system is redundant. However, if both sets are turned off artificially, the insects stop favoring yeast even when they are in need of proteins.

Steck, Walker et al. show how the animals’ internal states also influence the activity of these neurons. When the insects are deprived of molecules that are only found in proteins, these newly discovered neurons are primed to react more strongly when they are exposed to yeast. This potentially makes flies eat more yeast, and as a result consume more proteins.

Many biological systems in flies are similar in other insects and even humans. If this is the case for these taste neurons, fruit flies could be a good model to study how pests such as locusts and mosquitoes are attracted to the proteins in crops and blood, but also how humans make decisions about food.

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