A Moment of Science

Fruit Fly Tongue

Learn about fruit flies and how their taste receptors on this Moment of Science.

Ever wonder if insects have tongues, and if so, what do they taste?

Scientists have mapped out the Drosophilia fruit fly equivalent of our tongue and have made some interesting discoveries. Taste receptors are actually located in a variety of places on the fly’s body, but its primary taste organ is called the labellum. It’s positioned on the creature’s head, and it looks like a hairy pair of lips.

The labellum does certainly look different from our tongue, and the genes involved in fruit fly taste are distinct from our own taste genes, but despite all that, taste in insects and mammals works similarly.

Taste receptors send signals to the brain, and the fly responds accordingly–it chows down if the brain determines the food is safe, and it looks elsewhere if the food item is determined suspect. In particular, fruit flies respond to sweet and bitter tastes.

They have such a wide variety of combinations of bitter-sensitive tasting cells that scientists believe that when it comes to bitter flavors, fruit flies have more discriminating tastes than us mammals. This knack for tasting bitter flavors may help them distinguish between harmful and safe bacteria on a spoiled piece of fruit.

Understanding taste in insects may lead to better repellants to keep them off our fruit in the first place.

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