How fruit flies get rid of the extra salty snacks

Image of a fly’s labellum (analogous to their tongue) with high-salt neurons labeled in green and a newly discovered receptor labeled in magenta (University of British Columbia). Credit: University of British Columbia

Fruit flies are known for their sweet tooth, but new research also indicates they can provide hints about how animals sense and avoid high salt concentrations.

Using Mutant fruit flies, zoologists at the University of British Columbia have identified a new salt-rich receptor on the tongue of Drosophila receptor IR7c. IR7c controls the ability of insects to detect dangerously high salt concentrations, usually over 0.25 moles per liter, or about half as salty as seawater.

“In flyhigh salt avoidance is driven by both bitter taste neurons and a separate class of neurons entirely devoted to detecting high salt concentrations,” said doctoral student Sasha McDowell, lead author of the study published today in current biology

“When we knocked out the IR7c receptor, the flies lost their typical physiological responses and behavioral aversion to high concentrations of monovalent salts such as simple sodium chloride.”

Flies detect flavors using taste receptor neurons located all over their bodies, including the labellum at the very end of their mouths, their pharynx or throat, and even parts of their legs. In the case of fruit flies, researchers had already identified two co-receptors involved in detecting salt and a variety of other chemicals — IR76b and IR25a — but a salt-specific receptor on the labellum, IR7c, was unknown.

How flies get rid of the extra salty snacks

Zoologists at the University of British Columbia have discovered a new salt-rich receptor on the tongues of fruit flies that is essential for detecting and avoiding high salt concentrations. Credit: Sanjay Acharya, Wikipedia

Surprisingly, even with their IR7c receptor turned off, the mutated flies responded normally to high concentrations of less nutritionally abundant divalent salts such as calcium.

“High salt taste was usually thought of as a non-specific process, but it turns out that flies care what salts they taste,” said Professor Michael Gordon, senior author of the study. “This could be because calcium ions are poisonous to flies, and they should avoid them at any concentration. But sodium is an important part of any diet, so flies have to like the taste of sodium until the concentrations get high enough to be harmful.”

All animals need salt to survive – sodium is essential for the proper functioning of nerves and muscles and helps regulate fluids in the body. But too much salt can cause dehydration, kidney failureand other adverse effects.

“The receptor we discovered in flies is not present in mammals, but since high salt taste is not fully understood in any animal, our study may provide clues to mechanisms in other species,” said Dr. Gordon.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned from studying, salt taste, it’s that things always turn out to be more complicated and fascinating than we expect at the beginning!”

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More information:
Michael D. Gordon, A molecular mechanism for high salt taste in Drosophila, current biology (2022). DOI: 10.116/ … 0960-9822(22)00924-1

Quote: How Fruit Flies Throw Away the Extra Salty Snacks (June 2022, June 29) retrieved June 29, 2022 from

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