After listening to her parents debate the benefits of buying organic food, Ria Chhabra decided to take matters into her own hands. The Texas high-school student — along with biology researchers from Southern Methodist University — began studying how an organic diet affects the health of fruit flies, hoping to shed light on potential benefits for people.
Fruit flies and humans have lots of obvious physiological differences, but the insects are still common test subjects for studying human health, since about 77 percent of known human disease genes have a relevant match in the fruit-fly genome. And based on Chhabra's research, both species may have a lot to gain by eating more organic food.
"To our surprise, in the majority of our tests of flies on organic foods, the flies fed organic diets did much better on our health tests than the flies fed conventional food," says SMU biologist Johannes Bauer, who served as Chhabra's mentor, in a press release. "Longevity and fertility are the two most important aspects of fly life. On both of these tests, flies fed organic diets performed much better than flies fed conventional diets. They lived longer, had higher fertility, and had a much higher lifetime reproductive output."
That's a promising result, but as Chhabra points out, it's still unclear why exactly the organic-fed flies turned out healthier.
"We don't know why the flies on the organic diet did better," says Chhabra, a student at Clark High School in Plano, Texas. "That will require further research. But this is a start toward understanding potential health benefits."
According to SMU, Chhabra had the idea for this study after overhearing her parents discuss whether organic food is worth the money. And as an intern at SMU's biology department, she knew about Bauer's human health research on fruit flies. Before long, they and SMU researcher Santharam Kolli had published a peer-reviewed study on organic diets — all while Chhabra was still in high...