A recent study has led to the identification of a critical metabolic “switch” in fruit flies that helps oxygen-deprived cells survive. The researchers hope that they can utilize this information to help human cells and tissues adapt and survive under low oxygen situations caused by disease.

“A transcriptional suppressor, which we call hairy, is crucial for reducing the mismatch between supply and demand of oxygen,” says author Dan Zhou, PhD, from the University of California, San Diego.

The research team developed a strain of fly called Drosophila melanogaster with a tolerance to severe hypoxic conditions through adaptive change over many generations. The researchers then compared the difference in gene expression profiles between hypoxia-tolerant and normal Drosophila melanogaster,

“We discovered that the hairy gene binds to and shuts off, or suppresses, activation of many genes,” says Gabriel G. Haddad, MD. “When hairy is activated, it puts the brakes on various signaling pathways in the cell, enabling the cells to become resistant to the low-oxygen environment.”

The study is published in the October 17 issue of Public Library of Sciences (PLoS) Genetics.