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The Making of a Mutant: A Fruit Fly Love Story

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Long before her mother had told her the truth, she’d sensed from the sneers of her neighbors that she was different. Her larval segments were squished, not quite right, and her head too small. Now, hidden in her cocoon, she pondered her plight as she awaited, with apprehension, the great, forthcoming eclosion.

What would it be like? She’d heard the exciting but also frightening descriptions of the event from the elders, but now that she was about to experience the change herself, it suddenly seemed more significant. Would it hurt? What new senses would she have, and which would vanish? Would she still be different, or was the impending transformation a second chance?

As she felt her larval organs slowly dissolve, Ann’s thoughts returned to the horror that her parents had endured. The others spoke of The Great Mutagenesis in whispers and, although no one would put it into words, all of the youngsters feared, deep down in their discs, that it could happen again.

Ann remembered when her mother had told her, limbs trembling, of how all the males were plucked from their yeasty homes and placed in a new, sweetly reeking environment. The gullible males greedily sucked up the sticky goop at their tarsi.

Soon they became nauseated. Just as they felt about to expire, they were suddenly moved to a new home, where hundreds of sex-starved virgins waited, their eggs dropping unfertilized in anticipation.

Meanwhile, in another vial, dozens of newly eclosed, pure females were snatched, their virgin wings still unspread, and crammed into tiny, hot capsules. Some fainted. All were terrified. They were placed in a dark chamber for several minutes, and then dumped mercilessly into dens of slavering males with only one thing on their cerebral ganglia.

Then males and females from both poisonings were isolated as pairs. Fortunately for Ann’s mother, her father hadn’t been too demanding. The couple produced a surprising number of stillbirths. Ann could remember, no more than a first instar herself, her parents hopefully watching their offspring try desperately to hatch. Many who did were sick. Other couples in the colony were having similar problems.

And then there was Ann. Ann Tennapedia, or “mutant,” as they called her. They said she was missing something “up there.” As Ann grew, she noticed her parents glancing from her to the other larvae with a strange look in their ommatidia. When she reached third instar, which for some reason had taken an inordinately long time, she worried about what lay beyond, and finally went to her mother, seeking answers.


Ann slipped slowly into a dreamless sleep as she felt her imaginal discs expand.

After four days in this suspended animation, consciousness returned as Ann became aware of new muscles and sensations. She became restless – she had to move. As she rubbed her new legs, her cocoon suddenly split apart. Soon, she was wobbling about.

The world certainly seemed different with so many eye facets! Not used to this spectacular new body, she felt a little off balance. Her head ached. She tried to straighten her crinkled wings. Ann stumbled along, noticing the stares. She must be quite beautiful!

Then Ann remembered her difficult larvahood, and quickly examined herself – 6 legs, 2 wings, and quite a lovely abdomen! She was most anxious to see her beautiful new eyes. Were they the ruddy red wild type, or a pretty variant?

Ann sensed a shiny drop of moisture up ahead, and danced around it to see her new eyes in the reflection. Alas, they were wild type, but sparkling and symmetrical nonetheless.

Her head was certainly sore. She lowered it slightly, as if she was under some great weight. Still looking in the mirror-drop, Ann could not, at first, believe what it reflected.

Her proboscis fell open and she could feel her abdomen distend in shock as she tried vainly to comprehend what it was that stared back at her. It must be an illusion. A cruel trick.

Coming out of Ann’s head, where her antennae should have been, were two enormous appendages!


A Drosophila den is a busy place, and life must go on despite unpleasant variations.

Ann survived. Her larval handicap had accustomed her to ridicule. Since The Great Mutagenesis, quite a few oddballs like herself wandered about. Many of the elders had died off, and not enough young adults were eclosing to replace them.

One day, as Ann’s colony was transferred to a fresh new home, she sensed (more so than the others with their smaller antennae) excitement. It could only mean one thing: Orgy!

No need for her to worry her heavy head over an influx of new males. Nobody wanted her. She must be the only four-day-old virgin in existence.

Ann sadly stayed on the outskirts of the colony as the frenzied mating began. Staring into a shining droplet, much like the one that had initially revealed her gross deformity to her, she realized she was hideous.

She gazed at the offensive growths emanating from her head, past her fine ommatidia and voluptuous proboscis, down to her admittedly elegant legs. But what was this? Two of the reflected legs bore massive sex combs.

Ann looked down in utter confusion at her own smooth legs. Was she losing her cerebral ganglia? Slowly lifting her head, she met the gaze of one Anton O. Pedia.


The romance between Ann and Anton rivaled that depicted anywhere in the classical literature. Sensing immediately how right they were for one another, they entered a dreamland neither had thought possible. They danced together in ecstasy, oblivious to the repulsed stares.

Soon, Ann laid dozens of healthy, fertilized eggs. Within a week, the colony buzzed with joyous larval activity.

In her exhausted bliss, Ann didn’t notice that most of her offspring didn’t look like the others. They seemed happy as they munched through the media. The practical Anton, however, knew that they had inherited the same empty-headedness that he had been ostracized for in his larvahood.

Finally fat and satiated, the children of Ann and Anton, one by one, prepared to become pupae. Ann slowed her egg-laying and observed, with the satisfaction known only to mothers, her tanning youngsters. She knew many of them were like herself, but didn’t share her fear with Anton. No need to worry his massive head.

Ann hadn’t been feeling well. Her frequent exhaustion made walking on the sticky ground difficult. Anton, growing weary too, had to help her. On the 20th day after their meeting, Ann and Anton knew the end was only minutes away. As they lay silently in each other’s legs, they gazed in wonder as their offspring emerged from their cocoons, many bearing exquisite legs on their heads.


The new colony prospered. The descendants of Ann and Anton were vigorous and fruitful, and it soon became quite fashionable to display one’s antennal legs at full extension. Males with especially bulky heads were most popular with the ladies, much to the envy of those not blessed with good penetrance.

The generations passed, uneventful, for many transfers of the stock bottle. Memories of Ann and Anton, of their suffering, of those who had lived through The Great Mutagenesis, had all but vanished.

And then it happened. Without warning, couples were violently separated, the males sent to a sticky, sweet-smelling chamber where they quickly became ill. The poor females, just like their forgotten great-great-great-grandmothers, were mercilessly crammed into tiny, dark capsules and placed in a monstrous machine that pelted them with X-rays. And the unspeakable happened – the larvae were taken, too.

Most of the colony recovered. But instead of returning to their homes, they were sent into new bottles containing wild sex maniacs of all colors, bristle types, and persuasions.

Time passed. New couples formed, eggs were laid, and life went on.

Nine days after this Second Great Mutagenesis, the new homes of Ann and Anton’s descendants were once more lined with the darkening bodies of a new generation. The survivors watched with primeval awe as their children appeared, stretching their magnificent antennal legs towards the cotton at the bottle top in anticipation of adult life.


Long before his mother had told him the truth, he’d sensed from the sneers of his neighbors that he was different. Now, hidden in his cocoon, he awaited the unknown. Would he be born again?

Casting aside his chitin covering in an agony of release, he tested his new body parts slowly, then stumbled forward. He looked about him at his handsome neighbors, flexing their superbly hairy antennal legs. Why did they look at him so strangely?

Robert peered cautiously into a moisture droplet. He gazed lovingly at his well-endowed sex combs, admired his bulbous proboscis, and then stopped, his hemolymph turning to ice, as he scrutinized, with stunned disbelief, the perfectly-formed antennae protruding in obscene normalcy from his otherwise perfect head.

Drawing by Tommy Leung (blog, Twitter).

Ricki Lewis About the Author: Ricki Lewis received her PhD in genetics from Indiana University. Her ninth book, The Forever Fix: Gene Therapy and the Boy Who Saved It, narrative nonfiction, was just published by St. Martin’s Press. Most of her other books are college life science textbooks, including "Human Genetics: Concepts and Applications," (10th edition, 2012) from McGraw-Hill Higher Education. Routledge Press published "Human Genetics: The Basics" in 2010. Ricki has published thousands of magazine articles, from Discover to Playgirl, but mostly in The Scientist. She is a genetic counselor at CareNet Medical Group in Schenectady, NY and teaches "Genethics" online for the Alden March Bioethics Institute of Albany Medical College. Ricki is a hospice volunteer and a frequent public speaker (Macmillan Speaker’s Bureau). Ricki’s blog Genetic Linkage is at and she tweets at @rickilewis. Follow on Twitter @rickilewis.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 5 Comments

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  1. 1. karenalcott 11:12 pm 04/14/2012

    Dear Lord, that was wonderfull. Shades of the short story “Only a Mother Could Love”. I have always had strong feelings torward the “Little Souls”, particularly those who serve the survival of my own species. Of course they can’t recognise their own reflection; but if they could? More, more; oh how I miss Omni.

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  2. 2. MarkB4 5:42 am 04/15/2012

    Hmmm! Life in the lab. Great story.

    You should see it in the wild when the sky is overhead and the landscape is multi coloured green-ish, the neighbour is another species and survival against the odds is the first and last consideration amongst those who don’t.

    And who knows, maybe once in a while there is one who knows its own reflection.

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  3. 3. Happy Phil 1:51 pm 04/15/2012

    What a delightful view of life as a laboratory fruit fly.

    I recall making visible changes in fruit fly offspring in a science class while attending Northridge Junior High School in 1957. If they still offer those electives, I hope they will include this imaginative and entertaining perspective.

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  4. 4. HubertB 8:24 pm 04/16/2012

    Cute story:
    Still, since insects smell through their antennas, how would a fruit fly with legs instead of antennas know how to lay her eggs on a piece of fruit if she could not smell it? How would a male fruit fly find a virgin female if he could not smell her pheromones?

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  5. 5. rickilewis 10:11 pm 04/19/2012

    Good points, Hubert. This story is actually a version of my PhD work. Antennapedia flies do mate on standard media, but not as vigorously as wild type flies. They are immersed in their food and surrounded by virgins in the experimental setting, but you’re right, in the wild they would be very unfit. If I remember correctly, Antennapedia was originally x-ray induced (I could be wrong, it was a long time ago!).

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