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New Discovery About Fly Eyes Could Help Scientists Better Understand Human Night Blindness

Green background, fly with large eyes, primarily orange and brown in color.
Thomas Shahan/Creative Commons

One in 4,000 people is affected by night blindness - a condition that makes it difficult to see in low light conditions, like driving at night. Retinitis pigmentosa is the degeneration of cells in your retina and is the most common cause of night blindness. 

However, new research at the University of Utah using flies and the manipulation of the specific gene called baldspot could help individuals affected by night blindness caused by retinitis pigmentosa.

“We looked at these guys that are expressing this model of a human disease, retinitis pigmentosa that is linked to night blindness and so they have really small and degenerate eyes," said Rebecca Palu, a postdoctoral researcher in the department of human genetics at the University of Utah. "And if we get rid of baldspot expression in these flies we find that their eyes are a little bit bigger and a little less degenerate than if we leave baldspot expression normal.”

Palu’s research investigates how knocking down the baldspot gene in flies impacts their eyes.

“Normal fly eyes have all these little facets and they are really regularly arranged, and they are big and round," she said. "But when we express this protein we see that the eyes are really small and that they don’t have any of these facets, just this smooth glassy eye. Probably when we are restoring some size to these eyes they are probably still not seeing very well,  so we just use eye size as a proxy for how bad the degeneration is hitting them.”

There is currently no cure for individuals with the genetic disease of retinitis pigmentosa but Palu believes advances in the cause of this disease can shed light on treatments.  

“Genetic differences within patients that might help us to predict whether or not a person is going to have a severe disease or a less severe disease and maybe even predict what treatments might be helpful for them," Palu said.