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BACKGROUND: In most organisms in which acute ethanol exposure has been studied, it leads to similar changes in behavior. Generally, low ethanol doses activate the central nervous system, whereas high doses are sedative. Sensitivity to the acute intoxicating effects of ethanol is in part under genetic control in rodents and humans, and reduced sensitivity in humans predicts the development of alcoholism (Crabbe et al., 1994; Schuckit, 1994). We have established Drosophila melanogaster as a model organism to study the mechanisms that regulate acute sensitivity to ethanol.
METHODS: We measured the effects of ethanol vapor on Drosophila locomotor behaviors by using three different assays. Horizontal locomotion was quantified in a locomotor chamber, turning behavior was assayed in narrow tubes, and ethanol-induced loss of postural control was measured in an inebriometer. Mutants with altered sensitivity to the acute effects of ethanol were generated by treatment with ethyl methane sulfonate and isolated by selection in the inebriometer. We ascertained the effects of these mutations on ethanol pharmacokinetics by measuring ethanol levels in extracts of flies at various times during and after ethanol exposure.
RESULTS: Among nearly 30,000 potentially mutant flies tested, we isolated 19 mutant strains with reduced and 4 strains with increased sensitivity to the acute effects of ethanol as measured in the inebriometer. Of these mutants, four showed changes in ethanol absorption. Two mutants, named barfly and tipsy to reflect their reduced and increased ethanol sensitivity in the inebriometer, respectively, were analyzed for locomotor behaviors. Both mutants exhibited ethanol-induced hyperactivity that was indistinguishable from wild type. However, barfly and tipsy displayed reduced and increased sensitivity to the sedative effects of ethanol, respectively. Finally, both mutants showed an increased rate of ethanol-induced turning behavior.
CONCLUSIONS: The effects of acute ethanol exposure on Drosophila locomotor behaviors are remarkably similar to those described for mammals. The analysis of mutants with altered sensitivity to ethanol revealed that the genetic pathways which regulate these responses are complex and that single genes can affect hyperactivity, turning, and sedation independently.