A new agricultural pest has recently emerged in the United States and Northern Europe. The invasive species is a type of fruit fly that normally lives in Southeast Asia called Drosophila suzukii (also known as the spotted wing Drosophila). This fly poses a threat to fruit crops – including strawberries, blueberries, cherries, peaches and grapes – because, while other fruit flies lay eggs in overripe fruit, D. suzukii lays eggs in ripe fruit, leading to agricultural losses.
This shift in where fruit flies prefer to lay their eggs is related to changes in the senses of smell and touch, and taste could also play a role. Insects have evolved mechanisms that dissuade them from eating or laying eggs in plants with high levels of toxins, which taste bitter. If D. suzukii is less sensitive to bitter tastes than other flies, this could help explain why it lays eggs in just-ripe fruit, since the levels of certain bitter compounds are higher in the early stages of ripening than later on.
To figure out if this is the case, Dweck et al. studied different species of fruit fly. Compared to Drosophila melanogaster (a fruit fly common in America and Europe that is regularly used in scientific studies), D. suzukii had fewer bitter taste receptor neurons on the major taste organ of the fly head. These receptor neurons were also less responsive to a variety of bitter compounds.
Next, Dweck et al. tested whether D. melanogaster and D. suzukii showed different preferences for where to lay their eggs by offering them strawberry purées made from fruit at different ripening stages. In this experiment, D. suzukii preferred to lay its eggs on purées made from unripe or just-ripe strawberries, while D. melanogaster showed a preference for fermented (overripe) purée. Furthermore, when D. melanogaster flies were genetically modified so that they became less sensitive to bitter taste, they preferred to lay their eggs in ripe (rather than overripe) fruit, similar to D. suzukii. These results suggest that taste has a major role in the egg laying preferences of D. suzukii.
Further research is needed to determine which bitter compounds influence egg-laying decisions in each species of fruit fly, and what receptors respond to these compounds. However, Dweck et al.’s results lay the groundwork for new approaches to reducing D. suzukii’s impact on agriculture.