The Fly Room

Many of the early intricacies of genetics were worked out in a small laboratory on the Columbia University campus

By Kamala Kelkar, Ankur Paliwal and Rob Verger

To most people, a fruit fly is an annoyance, a sign the trash needs to be taken out. But for Thomas Hunt Morgan, a scientist working at Columbia University in the early 20th century, fruit flies were a way to better understand genetics. He bred thousands of flies, or Drosophila melanogaster, in glass milk bottles that occupied almost every shelf and table of his laboratory, which famously came to be known as the “fly room.”

Fruit flies have been a model organism for scientists for over a century. (Agricultural Research Service/Wikimedia Commons)

Fruit flies have been a model organism for over a century. (Agricultural Research Service/Wikimedia Commons)

Morgan, the chair of the department of experimental zoology at the time, was interested in exploring how certain parental features pass to successive generations. He focused on fly traits like eye color or wing size. The principles he and his team discovered—like the fact that genes located close to each other on chromosomes are likely to be inherited together—are still important today. He received a Nobel Prize in 1933 for his work.

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Thomas Morgan. (Wikimedia Commons)

“They actually came up with the idea that they could use what’s called recombination between various parts of the chromosome to map the physical distance between genes,” says Darcy Kelley, a professor of biological sciences at Columbia University. “And that was their great contribution. It was pretty amazing. So they basically founded modern genetics next door in Schermerhorn Hall.”

It was actually Morgan’s 19-year-old student Alfred Sturtevant who first mapped the genes. One evening in 1911, Sturtevant went home, skipped his homework, and spent most of the night drawing a map to figure out the position of genes on the X chromosome.

The context behind Morgan and his students’ discoveries, says Greg Freyer, a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, is the work of Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel. Darwin theorized about evolution in the mid 19th century, and Mendel experimented with pea plants to see how different traits were inherited. As for the distances between genes—what’s known as map distance—the concept is named after Morgan, Freyer points out. “To this day we talk about map distances as centimorgans.”

Listen to Greg Freyer discuss Thomas Hunt Morgan’s work:

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