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Geneticists Develop Fruit Flies That Can Count

Illustration for article titled Geneticists Develop Fruit Flies That Can Count

It took them 40 tries, but a group of geneticists have developed a generation of fruit flies that can count. Flies that can count, you say? Apparently, it's possible, and it could give researchers some new clues into dyscalculia, a dyslexia-related learning disability that impedes a person's ability to understand math.

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So how did the team, made up of scientists from Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada and the University of California, reach this milestone? Each batch of flies got a 20-minute session of basic math learning )microscopic desks and pencils not included), and afterwards, they were tested on their skills using the following method, per Wired UK:

The flies were exposed to two, three or four flashes of light, with two or four flashes coinciding with a shake of the container the flies were kept in. Following a pause, the flies were again subjected to the flashing light, however none prepared themselves for a repeat of the shake since they could not discern a difference between two, three or four flashes.

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But then came the winning, math-minded 40th generation of flies, at which point, the insects had evolved enough to understand a shake was coming after two or four flashes. Although other creatures—chicks, salamanders, mongoose lemurs—have some arithmetic chops, this is the first time a being has learned to count through evolution. But it's not the last step—scientists know the flies have evolved, but they need to figure out how their brains changed so they can translate those findings to human beings. [Wired UK via Reddit]

Image credit: Studiotouch/Shutterstock

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DISCUSSION

kyosuke
Kat Callahan

Debbie downer time.

How do we know the flies have any conceptual understanding of counting? Just because they now recognise two flashes and four flashes coincide with a shake but three flashes doesn't does not mean that they understand the conceptual link between two, three, and four. It just means they've evolved to have a reaction (bracing) to an outside stimulus. I think to call it counting there has to be a true understanding of the abstract meaning of two flashes versus three flashes versus four flashes.