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Laurier graduate student Emily Martin is an expert on mating behaviour in Drosophila melanogaster – more commonly known as the fruit fly.

Martin has been studying fruit flies since her undergraduate degree at Laurier. Fruit flies are excellent research subjects for understanding genetics and behaviour. The insects have complex social interactions that can provide insight into how species evolve.

Martin, working with supervisor Tristan Long, associate Biology professor, recently co-published an article, “Are flies kind to kin? The role of intra- and inter-sexual relatedness in mediating reproductive conflict,” in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B journal.

In their article, Martin and Long try to uncover why individual behaviour varies depending on the situation. They questioned the findings of another study published in the high-profile journal Nature, which found that if fruit fly brothers are in close contact, they act nicer towards each other when competing for a mate. Researchers suggested that this behaviour is because no matter who wins the mate, both brothers’ genes are passed on as they have common ancestors.

“Our work suggests that the conclusions presented in previous studies might not capture the whole picture,” said Martin. “We found that indeed brothers appeared to treat one another more ‘kindly,’ but also found that this same courtesy was not extended to sisters.”

Long and Martin suggest that relatedness may matter, but that individual genetic variation may be more important. Kinship alone over-simplifies the issue.

Long and Martin’s experiments have contributed to a better understanding of the potential role of kinship in behavioural evolution and draws together questions that until now have mainly been asked in isolation. By combining the study of relatedness between the sexes and between two individuals of the same sex, researchers are able to paint a more complete picture and ask better questions.

Martin said she was glad to have had the opportunity to work on this project at Laurier and to be able to use a real organism to study evolution. Working with the professors and students in Laurier’s Department of Biology has helped Martin in her education.

“The biology department is small enough that you can really get to know the professors, but still large enough to cover a diverse range of fields within biology. By working with all these different students, I feel I've come away with more than just my own degree, but also a better understanding of biology in general.”

Martin hopes to work in the environment sector after graduation and is considering a PhD.

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