D. melanogaster was first described by Meigen in 1830. Subsequent taxonomists described this species under at least five different names from 1830 to 1941. The profusion of names was likely due to the quick spread of this species throughout the world as a result of the fruit trade.
Drosophila research began in the early 1900s when a number of scientists, most notably T. H. Morgan, began to use D. melanogaster as a model organism for studies of genetics. W. E. Castle was the first to bring this species into the lab and develop many of the culture techniques still used today. It was Morgan's group at Columbia University, however, that fully took advantage of this species as a research model. Morgan, up to that time, had been experimenting with marine invertebrates in an effort to understand a number of developmental processes. He was looking for a small, rapidly developing species that produced large numbers of progeny and was both easy and inexpensive to maintain and manipulate in the laboratory. Early in these studies, it became clear that D. melanogaster was just such a model system. In 1912 Morgan's group had isolated roughly two dozen mutants. Morgan and his colleagues began to use these mutants to provide experimental evidence for the chromosome theory of inheritance, and they devised methods for gene mapping that are still used today.
Drosophila was an important model organism throughout the 20th century. Ed Lewis began working on homeotic mutants in the 1950s. His work focused on the bithorax gene complex. Most Diptera have only a single set of wings on the mesothoracic segment, but these mutant flies had two pairs
of wings, one each on the meso- and metathoracic segments (Fig. 1). This set of genes has since proved to be the major control switch for body axis development and is conserved in many organisms, including humans. The Nusslein—Volhard and Wieschaus screens of the early 1980s further advanced the use of D. melanogaster as a model system to study the development of more complex organisms. The future Nobel laureates elegantly showed the genetic control of development, mapping many of the genes involved in forming the major body axes in nearly all metazoans.
D. melanogaster continues to be an important model system in biological research, and the Drosophila Genome Project has completed the entire genome sequence of Drosophila melanogaster. This work, described by Adams and colleagues in 2000, has provided researchers with an immense amount of data that can be used to understand the mechanisms of development and the evolution of the genome. As of late 2002, a reference search of Flybase (http://flybase.bio.indiana.edu/) recovers about 20,000 papers with the query terms "Drosophila melanogaster." Furthermore, GenBank (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/) currently contains over 322,000 nucleotide entries for this species. Several stock centers around the world are dedicated to maintaining live cultures of D. melanogaster and its relatives for research. For example, the Bloomington Stock Center (http://flystocks.bio.indiana.edu/) currently has about 8700 different lines, mostly mutants of D. melanogaster, and the Tucson Stock Center (http://stockcenter.arl.arizona.edu/) maintains about 1300 cultures from nearly 300 species in the family Drosophilidae.
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