Two groups of fruit flies living in Israel’s so-called ‘Evolution Canyon’ each have unique DNA, according to research just published by Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI) at Virginia Tech.

The American scientists found that the fruit flies, which live in vastly different climatic conditions just 200 meters apart on Mount Carmel, have evolved different genetic patterns to help cope with their environmental conditions.

The Virginia Tech researchers explained that the unique conditions found at Israel’s Mount Carmel, which include a tropical climate on the south-facing side and a European-like woodlands on the north face, contributed to the discovery.

“We don’t have many examples of rapid environmental adaptation to stressful conditions from the field,” study co-author Pawel Michalak said. “We can simulate such conditions in a lab, but it is valuable to observe this actually happening in a natural system.”

Michalak explained the presence of Drosophila melanogaster, a native fruit fly that reproduces quickly and is often used in genetic studies, provided an ideal way for the research team to observe genetic changes of populations living in two distinct micro-climates in very close proximity.

“Despite complicating factors, such as likely gene flow between the two populations and changing demographics, the difference in the microclimate in this canyon apparently is so pervasive that it is sufficient to drive the genetic differences,” Michalak said, emphasizing the link between genetics and the environment was shown to be significant.

He added that the study may offer clues to the impact of climate change on species development. “Although we were not correlating genetic change with climate change, we were looking at heat-stress effects, which gives us an indirect understanding relevant to global climate changes,” Michalak said.

He added that while initially conducted on fruit-flies, the knowledge that the environment yields considerable influence over genetics will likely have great significance in the years to come, as weather patterns are expected to change.

“The basic question of how organisms adapt to stressful environments is going to be more important in the years ahead,” Michalak noted. “It affects us as a whole.”

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