Consider the fruit fly.
Pesky, to be certain. And if you’re dealing with overripe tomatoes or a bad apple, perhaps a little gross.
But also powerful.
For one undergraduate researcher at the University of Maine, this insect has the potential to shed light on the cardiac and reproductive effects of Bisphenol A. Commonly known as BPA, the chemical is present in hard plastics and canned goods and has made headlines because of possible links to heart disease, endocrine disruption and other health problems.
Zachery Garcia of Brunswick, Maine, a senior biology major with minors in neuroscience, chemistry and psychology, recently received a pre-medical thesis fellowship from UMaine’s Honors College for the project.
“It’s exciting to feel like I’m a part of changing the public view on something that a lot of people think is dangerous, which has been downplayed until recently,” says Garcia, who is in the process of applying to medical schools in the hope of becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon. “It’s nice to be at the forefront.”
Garcia is a member of UMaine’s Health Professions Club, and he believes that medicine is best practiced when connected to research. At UMaine, he says, “all I had to do was ask” for the opportunity to work in a lab.
“UMaine is doing a really good job of trying to give qualified students the preparation they need to be able to be accepted to (top medical schools),” Garcia says.
His adviser is Harold “Dusty “ Dowse, a biology professor whose own research centers on the effects of radon and arsenic on Drosophila melanogaster, more commonly known as the fruit fly.
“The fly may not seem that relevant, but it is,” says Dowse, whose research is funded by the Maine Institute of Human Genetics and Health. “We’re closer than you’d think in terms of our physiology. The fly’s heart has a lot of characteristics that are similar to the human heart. They’re just flies, but they have behavior, and we’re specifically looking at mating behavior.”
BPA is known as a “gender bender” because it mimics the effects of female hormones. Like Dowse’s research into arsenic and radon, Garcia is looking at the transgenerational effects of BPA. Flies that are exposed directly to BPA won’t experience altered heart function or mating behavior, but their offspring and those of future generations may.
Over the summer, Garcia received a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates fellowship to work at the Mount Desert Island Biological Institute. The experience prepared him for his thesis study.
It is Garcia’s hope that his findings will shed light on the effects of BPA in humans, as well.
“Can children who have never been exposed to BPA have effects from it that are passed on from their parents?” Garcia asks.
For Dowse, Garcia’s pilot project is exciting for several reasons — it may inform his own research, their findings could have major significance in the scientific community, and their work could eventually make the country’s food packaging products and processes safer for the consumer.
“We don’t know what we’re going to get — it’s science,” Dowse says. “But whatever we find, it’s reportable.”
Image Description: Zachery Garcia