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  • Writer's pictureKirk Hartley

Can Toxic Tort Lawyers Learn from Fruit Flies ? Science, Law and Animal Studies – Phylogenet

A new ScienceDaily article raises a question: can toxic tort lawyers learn from fruit flies ?

The lesson, it seems, is that toxic tort lawyers will devote increasing amounts of energy to arguing the extent to which studies of animals – or even insects – are or should be admissible and persuasive for purposes of reaching conclusions regarding cause and effect in humans. Today, defendants are usually (not always) happy to argue that the only "credible science" is a double-blind epidemiological study that shows a relationship between exposure and harm at a relative risk at or above 2.0, or some variation of that theme, as illustrated by this simple but useful outline of some state law cases after Daubert. On the other hand, plaintiffs, especially early movers, are often (but not always) forced to place faith in other forms of science because it often takes years to create and execute a double-blind epidemiological study, if it can be done at all.

The fruit fly teaches us that these debates will becoming increasingly informed by phylogenetics, a field of science that seeks to offers insights into the how and why of evolutionary genetic similarities and differences between various organisms. Go here for a Wikipedia explanation, or here for a free on-line lecture from iBio. (More examples of why the web is so incredible for spreading information).

The fruit fly article illustrates the point in a general way. The gist of the article is that scientists have now proved that humans, animals and fruit flies all share a protein (TRPA-1, they call it), that triggers a string reaction to noxious substances. This is not stunning news in the sense of teaching that we can learn from humble forms of life. After all, scientist for years have learned much from worms. That said, this phylogetics outcome is important enough to have earned space in the March 18 issue of Nature, perhaps the world’s most respected journal for interdisciplinary science. So, maybe even toxic tort lawyers can indeed learn from fruit flies.

Key excerpts are set out below from the ScienceDaily article:


"Chemical nociception, the detection of tissue-damaging pungent chemicals like those found in wasabi, tear gas and cigarette smoke, is triggered by a protein receptor known as TRPA1, which is found throughout the human body in the nose, mouth, skin, lungs, and GI tract. Studying the chemical sensors of Drosophila fruit flies, scientists discovered that flies use their ortholog of the human TRPA1 sensor for the same purpose.

Using a combination of behavior, physiology and phylogenetics, the scientists discovered that this defensive response to noxious compounds is an evolutionary stalwart cutting across immense time scales and linking humans, insects and many other animals back to their common ancestor over 500 million years ago, said lead author and biologist Paul Garrity.


Working with biochemist Doug Theobald, the team reconstructed TRPA1’s family tree back some 700 million years using a variety of bioinformatic methods. "We discovered that a new branch split off the tree at least 500 million years ago, and that this new branch, the TRPA1 branch, appeared to have had all the features needed for chemical sensing even back then," said Garrity. "Since that time, it appears that most animals, including humans, have maintained this same ancient system for detecting reactive chemicals."

And therein lies some of the future promise of harnessing TRPA1. Because the receptor is so widely dispersed throughout the animal kingdom, it holds promise both as a target for therapeutics and deterrents. Understanding more about how the receptor works may help lead to important applications in medicine and industry."

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