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Davis, California

Monday, September 20, 2021

Column: Madeline McCurry-Schmidt

The Large Hadron Collider, iPods, Snuggies. Recent years have brought about many glorious inventions. My favorite invention, however, wasn’t created by an international team of scientists or a corporation. It was born on the UC Davis campus.

Last winter, entomology graduate student Hanayo Arimoto created the world’s first magnetic fly. Arimoto needed to get flies to buzz in front of a camera in order to study how fast they beat their wings. The flies are the kind that buzz around cows’ faces and breed in nearby cow pies. Sometimes worms called nematodes infect the fly larva, and the female flies are rendered sterile. Arimoto spent four years studying the fly/worm combo until she got stuck on the problem of how to get flies to buzz in front of a camera.

First she tried super gluing the backs of live flies to the ends of nails and earring stems, but the glue kept them from buzzing properly. Flies have powerful muscles on the top of their thoraxes, and the glue was stiff as a cast. Besides that, super glue is also toxic. Then Arimoto tried stretchier, less toxic glues, but they weren’t strong enough to hold the flies. The only glues that worked were toxic. She needed a fly under lab conditions to behave the way it would in the field.

A post doc suggested trying magnets instead of glue. It was brilliant – except that Arimoto had to find a way to glue the magnets to the backs of the flies. Again, the glues failed. Finally, Arimoto had her eureka moment. Paint was more elastic and less toxic than glue. If she mixed iron filings with paint, she could avoid the glue altogether.

It worked. After buying dozens of glues at art stores and sending scores of flies to die sticky deaths, Arimoto found a method that worked. She would knock the flies out with carbon dioxide gas, then paint their backs with the magnetic paint. She built a sort of scaffold with blunt nails pointing down like magnetic icicles. When the flies woke up, they’d find themselves flapping their wings but going nowhere.

Arimoto and I have worked at the same lab for almost two years, so I saw the stages of this fly saga. Our windowsills were sprinkled with the bodies of her escaped flies. I saw her mix paint with the iron filings from those “Wooly Willy” toys. All those nerve-wracking months had resulted in success. Arimoto is left with an effective method and a fascinating journal of her work with flies entitled “The Book of Failures: Ideas that Didn’t Work.”

“The Book of Failures” is a composition book that sits on her shelf, full of notes about super glue, earring stems and glue-painted paper wedges. There are notes in the margins like “glue DRAMA AGAIN!!!” and bent wires taped in it like scrap-booked remnants- all the failures that led to success. It’s the story of scientific research writ small, how trial and error can lead to breakthrough.

This is why I love magnetic flies. The tedious process led to something so simple but genius. Arimoto invented the magnetic fly, and, like a good scientist, shared her method with others – a fellow entomologist may be using the magnetic fly invention in a fruit fly study.

Arimoto’s adventure is far from over. She found the right set up, but she has yet to collect her data. I asked if she was excited about inventing magnetic flies. She laughed, then said, “I’ll be more excited when the experiment actually works.”

MADELINE MCCURRY-SCHMIDT needs column ideas! Send her info about awesome science classes or your own research. She can be reached at memschmidt@ucdavis.edu.

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