Student develops machine to aid pain research in flies

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Photo by Patrick Goodman

This past summer, Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Drew Steneson’s fly research lab teamed up with Dr. Jacob Moldenhauer from the physics department, to design a machine that could poke Drosophila melanogaster, a common fruit fly, at the exact same force and speed every time.

The Stenesen lab researches genetics in Drosophila, a species of fruit flies used as a model organism to increase our understanding of how pain works in humans. They are commonly used as model organisms in genetics because they share certain molecular processes with humans, which allows us to learn more about humans without having ethical problems. 

A method commonly used to study pain in Drosophila is poking them with a fishing line to stimulate a reaction. However, when doing this, the needle must hit the fly at the exact force and speed every single time in order to have consistent data. It can sometimes take Ph.D. students months to learn how to poke the fly perfectly, and makes it even more difficult for undergraduates to conduct their research. 

When speaking to Stenesen about his goals for this research project, he said that the project is “multilayered.”

One goal is to understand the genetic aspects that influence the pain circuit. Flies are used as a model of general sensory information transmission.

“Another aspect of our research is to try to bring the ability to ask these questions to as many individuals as possible,” said Steneson.. “We can take a more complex experimental design, distill it down to make it more approachable and applicable to a variety of institutes, then we can bring that research and the ability to perform that research to a broader audience.”  

 “Pain is interesting in itself, but at the end of the day, it’s a human experience. What flies allow us to do is to correlate some environmental impact, like a poke or change in temperature, to a behavioral response.” 

Sophomore Biology major Julia Krause spent 10 weeks developing the software and building the machine. 

“I pretty much learned how to use an Arduino board, which I had never used before,” said Krause. ”It’s a simple computer chip in a way.”

Krause learned how to program this board with a custom coding that she created. Using hardware supplies and a 3D printer, she created a design for a machine that would smoothly poke the fly. 

The design is not entirely finished yet because  towards the end of the summer as Krause began testing out her machine, she quickly found that the motor being used was the incorrect piece and was not poking the fly at the right velocity. 

Though this seems like an easy fix, Krause said that the piece needed for this machine does not exist.

 “I’m at a bit of a standstill right now trying to make that piece,” said Krause. “Once I get that piece it’ll pretty much be done.” 

Once this project is finished, it will not only be applied in UD’s genetics lab course that Dr. Stenesen teaches, but to other institutions’ undergraduate research programs as well.

Stenesen stated that his vision was to “not have a boundary” between undergraduate research and a lab that you sign up for when signing up for a class. 

“The idea would be that you can try out research in a course because it’s a better way to learn science. The best way to learn science is to do science,” Stenesen said. 

Stenesen’s labs and research help students to better understand their areas of interest in science, as well as help them determine whether they want to continue onto graduate school. 

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