For Valentine’s Day, I offer a fly’s eye view of my PhD research on the mutation Antennapedia, which replaces fruit flies’ antennae with legs.
“The Making of a Mutant” initially appeared in this millennium at Scientific American blogs in 2012, and here at DNA Science for Valentine’s Day in 2013. But I wrote it in 1978, sneaking it into a manuscript bound for the journal Genetics to see if my mentor, Thom Kaufman, was paying attention. He was. My story was referenced at his retirement party, generations of genetics grad students at Indiana University having read it.
“The Making of a Mutant” started as a joke, “fly porn.” But over the years it has morphed into a metaphor for our times. It’s a little like this year’s Academy Award winning film Parasite being much more than the crazy narrative it at first seems, instead a simmering statement on classism.
Today, Anton O. Pedia’s tale of being different is more timely than ever, as the increasing mixing of people of different ancestries hurtles forward against a frightening new backdrop of hatred, division, marginalization, and dehumanization. As the flies find out, the perception of being different is transient. Life is all about context.
The events and facts reported here are all accurate, to the best of my knowledge.
She knew she was different long before her mother had told her the truth. A sensitive youngster, she could tell from the sneering glances of her neighbors that she was, somehow, not quite like them. True, her larval segments were squished, her head too small. Now, hidden in her cocoon, she pondered her plight as she awaited, with apprehension, the great eclosion.
What would it be like? She’d heard the exciting but also frightening descriptions of the event from the elders, but now that she was about to experience the change herself, it suddenly seemed more significant. Would it hurt? What new senses and skills would she have, and which would vanish? Would she still be different, or was the impending transformation a second chance?
As she felt her larval organs begin to slowly dissolve, Ann’s thoughts returned to the horror that her parents had endured. The others spoke of The Great Mutagenesis in whispers and, although no one would put it into words, all of the youngsters feared, deep down in their discs, that it could happen again.
Ann remembered when her mother had told her, limbs trembling, of how all of the males were plucked from their yeasty homes and placed in a new, sweetly reeking environment. The gullible males greedily sucked up the sticky goop at their tarsi.
Soon they became nauseated. Just as they felt about to expire, they were suddenly moved to a new home, where hundreds of sex-starved virgins waited, their still-wet-and-wrinkled wings shimmering, their eggs dropping unfertilized in anticipation.
Meanwhile, in another vial, dozens of newly-eclosed, pure females were snatched, their virgin wings still unspread, and crammed into tiny, hot capsules. Some fainted. All were terrified. They were placed in a dark chamber for several minutes, and then dumped mercilessly into dens of slavering males with only one thing on their cerebral ganglia.
Then males and females from both mass poisonings were isolated as pairs. Fortunately for Ann’s mother, her father hadn’t been too demanding. The couple produced a surprising number of stillbirths. Ann could remember, no more than a first instar herself, her parents hopefully watching their offspring try desperately to hatch, the fully-formed embryos, about to be larvae, quaking with the effort beneath their thin eggshells. Many of those who did burst free were sick. Other couples in the colony were having similar problems.
And then there was Ann. Ann Tennapedia, or “mutant,” as her insensitive bottle mates called her. As Ann grew, transitioning from one instar to the next, she noticed her parents glancing from her to the other larvae with a strange look in their ommatidia. When she reached third instar, which for some reason had taken an inordinately long time, she worried about what lay ahead, and finally went to her mother, seeking answers.
Ann slipped slowly into a dreamless sleep as she felt her imaginal discs expand.
After four days in suspended animation, consciousness returned as Ann became aware of new muscles and sensations. She became restless – she had to move. As she rubbed her new legs, her cocoon suddenly split apart. Soon, she was wobbling about.
The world certainly seemed different with so many eye facets! Unaccustomed to this spectacular new body, Ann at first felt a little off balance. Her head ached. She tried to straighten her crinkled wings. Ann stumbled along, noticing the stares. She must be quite beautiful!
Then Ann remembered her difficult larvahood, and quickly examined herself – 6 legs, 2 wings, and quite a lovely abdomen! She was most anxious to see her beautiful new eyes. Were they ruddy red wild type, or a pretty variant?
Ann sensed a shiny drop of moisture up ahead, and danced around it to see her new eyes in the reflection. Alas, they were wild type, but sparkling and symmetrical nonetheless.
Her head was certainly sore. She lowered it slightly, as if she was under some great weight. Still looking in the mirror-drop, Ann could not, at first, believe what it reflected.
Her proboscis fell open and she could feel her abdomen distend in shock as she tried vainly to comprehend what was staring back at her. It must be an illusion. A cruel trick.
Coming out of Ann’s head, where her antennae should have been, were two enormous appendages!
A Drosophila den is a busy place, and life must go on despite unpleasant variations.
Ann survived. Her larval handicap had accustomed her to ridicule. Since The Great Mutagenesis, quite a few oddballs like herself wandered about. Many of the elders had died off, and not enough young adults were surviving embryohood to replace them.
One day, as Ann’s colony was transferred to a fresh new home, she sensed a certain excitement. It could only mean one thing: Orgy!
No need for her to worry her heavy head over an influx of new males. Nobody wanted her. She must be the world’s only four-day-old virgin.
Ann pitifully clung to the outskirts of the colony as the frenzied mating began. Staring into a shining droplet, much like the one that had initially revealed her gross deformity to her, she realized how hideous she truly was.
She gazed at the offensive growths emanating from her head, past her opalescent ommatidia and voluptuous proboscis, down to her admittedly fine legs. But what was this? Two of the reflected legs bore massive sex combs.
She looked down in utter confusion at her own smooth legs. Slowly lifting her head, she met the gaze of Anton O. Pedia.
The romance between Ann and Anton rivaled that depicted anywhere in the classical literature. Sensing in those first few awkward moments that they were indeed meant for one another, they entered a dreamland neither had thought possible. They danced together in ecstasy, oblivious to the revolted stares.
Soon, out of Ann’s hindquarters emerged dozens of shiny white fertilized eggs, glowing with health. Within a week, the colony buzzed with joyous larval feeding activity.
In her exhausted bliss, Ann didn’t notice that most of her offspring didn’t look like the others. They seemed happy as they munched through the maple-flavored glop that was their home. Anton, however, always the practical one, knew that many of their children were afflicted with the same empty-headedness that he himself had been ostracized for in his larvahood.
Finally, bulging and satiated, the offspring of Ann and Anton, one by one, abandoned their gastronomic way of life for the mysterious serenity of pupariation. As the incessant chomping of larval jaws diminished, Ann slowed her ovipositing and observed, with the satisfaction known only to mothers, her tanning youngsters. She knew many of them would be like herself, but didn’t share her fear with Anton. No need to worry his massive head.
Ann hadn’t been feeling well. Her frequent exhaustion made walking on the sticky ground difficult. Anton, growing weary too, had to help her.
And so as the days passed, the children of Ann and Anton melanized as their proud parents weakened.
On the 20th day after their meeting, Ann and Anton knew the end was near. As they lay silently in each other’s legs, they gazed in wonder as their offspring emerged from their cocoons, many bearing exquisite legs on their heads.
The new colony prospered. The descendants of Ann and Anton were vigorous and fruitful, and it soon became quite fashionable to display one’s antennal legs at full extension. Males with especially bulky heads were most popular with the ladies, much to the envy of those not blessed with good penetrance.
The generations passed, uneventfully, for many transfers of the stock bottle. Memories of Ann and Anton, of their suffering, of those who had lived through The Great Mutagenesis, had all but vanished.
And then it happened. Without warning, couples were violently separated, the males sent to a sticky, sweet-smelling chamber where they quickly became ill. The poor females, just like their forgotten great-great-great-grandmothers, were mercilessly crammed into tiny, dark capsules and placed in a monstrous machine that pelted them with X-rays. And the unspeakable happened – the larvae were taken, too.
Time passed. New couplings formed, eggs were laid, and life in the lab went on.
Nine days after this Second Great Mutagenesis, the new homes of Ann and Anton’s descendants were once more lined with the darkening bodies of a new generation. The survivors watched with primeval awe as their children appeared, stretching their magnificent antennal legs towards the cotton at the bottle top in anticipation of adult life.
He knew he was different, long before his mother told him the truth. A sensitive youngster, he could tell from the sneers of his neighbors that he was somehow not quite like them. Now, hidden in his cocoon, he awaited the unknown. Would he be born again?
Casting aside his chitin covering in an orgasm of release, he tested his new body parts slowly, then stumbled forward. He looked about him at his handsome neighbors, flexing their superbly hairy antennal legs. Preening. But why were they looking at him so strangely?
Robert peered cautiously into a moisture droplet. He gazed lovingly at his well-endowed sex combs, admired and extended his phallic proboscis, and then stopped, his hemolymph turning to ice, as he scrutinized, with stunned disbelief, the perfectly-formed, wild type antennae protruding in obscene normalcy from his otherwise perfect head.
(thanks to Antoine Morin for mating fruit flies image and Tommy Leung for cartoon)