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In a scientific triumph whose significance would be difficult to exaggerate, American boffins have managed to create a breed of special flies which require hardly any sleep.

The wakeful insects are the brainchild of Paul Shaw, PhD, of the Washington University in St Louis (WUSTL). According to WUSTL, "Shaw's lab was the first to show that fruit flies enter a state of inactivity comparable to sleep".

Having discovered this weakness, Shaw and his colleagues lost no time in rectifying it. They began a dedicated eugenics programme aimed at the creation of special flies needing little or no sleep.

"After generations of selective breeding," it says in the WUSTL statement, "Shaw's group had produced a line of flies that naturally spent only an hour a day asleep — less than 10 percent of the 12 hours of sleep normal flies get."

And the specially-bred flies have other abilities, too. As any fule kno, 70 hours of sleep deprivation will kill a normal fly; but the insomniac drosophila can go up to 240 hours without sleep and still survive. Sleep deprivation is, of course, a standard method used by the CIA and similar organisations for softening up prisoners before interrogation.

Truly, Shaw appeared to have created a kind of superior, tougher, harder working - one might say a "super" - fly.

But, in the field of eugenically bred superflies as in other areas of endeavour, there's a price to be paid for everything. According to WUSTL, Shaw and his fellow uber-fliege boffins "quickly noticed an obvious and surprising behavioral change: even though flies have six legs, the insomniac flies fell over more often".

"We sent them to experts in neurodegeneration in flies to see if their lack of sleep or the breeding had somehow damaged their brains," Shaw says. "But the experts said there weren't any physical brain abnormalities."

So it seems there may be a grisly unexplained price to pay for special abilities, but apparently not an impossible one. Though the unsleeping flies do tend to tumble over from time to time, they're basically OK.

"Overall, the flies are able to perform better than they should, given how much sleep they miss," says Shaw's fellow fly-breeder Laurent Seugnet. "That makes it tempting to speculate that insomnia is like drug addiction."

The superfly research is published in today's issue of the Journal of Neuroscience. Quite apart from the obvious benefits of sleepless fruit flies - for instance in disposing of piles of surplus fruit - the St Louis boffins think their work could lead to better understanding of insomnia in humans.

Even so, there will be some who'd say the scientists might more usefully have been working on our long-awaited monkey butlers. ®

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