December 23, 2013

A high school student from Plano, Texas, under the guidance of SMU biologist Johannes H. Bauer, recently participated in a new study looking at the potential health benefits of organic versus non-organic food. Specifically, research conducted by Ria Chhabra and Bauer found that fruit flies fed an organic diet recorded better health outcomes than flies fed a non-organic diet.

Ria Chhabra discusses her research with biologist Johannes Bauer in his lab.

Ria Chhabra discusses her research with biologist Johannes Bauer in his lab.

“While these findings are certainly intriguing, we now need to determine why the flies on the organic diets did better, especially since not all the organic diets we tested provided the same positive health outcomes,” says Bauer, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in Dedman College and principal investigator for the study.

To investigate whether organic foods are healthier for consumers, the lab utilized one of the most widely used model systems, the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. Because of the low costs associated with fly research and the fly’s short life cycle, researchers use fruit flies to study human diseases – from diabetes to heart function to Alzheimer’s disease.

Fruit flies on organic diets showed improvements on the most significant measures of health, namely fertility and longevity. “We don’t know why the flies on the organic diet did better,” says Chhabra, who led the experiment. “That will require further research. But this is a start toward understanding potential health benefits.”

Chhabra sought to conduct the experiments after hearing her parents discuss whether it’s worth it to buy more expensive organic foods to achieve possible health benefits.

Bauer mentored Chhabra by helping guide and design her research experiments. The research focus of Bauer’s fruit fly lab is nutrition and its relationship to longevity, health and diabetes.

The Bauer lab fruit flies were fed organic and nonorganic produce purchased from a leading national grocery retailer. The flies were fed extracts made from organic and conventional potatoes, soybeans, raisins and bananas. They were not fed any additional nutritional supplements. The researchers tested the effects of each food type independently and avoided any confounding effects of a mixed diet.

The findings have been published in the open access journal PLOS One. Bauer and Chhabra co-authored the paper with Santharam Kolli, a research associate at SMU.

The Bauer lab results come at a time when the health effects of organic food are widely debated. Previous studies have yielded conflicting results as reflected in the scientific literature. While several studies have shown elevated nutrient content and lower pesticide contamination levels in organic food, a recent publication reporting a large-scale analysis of all available studies concluded no clear trend was apparent.

Baur urges caution, however, in jumping to conclusions about their study results. “We need to understand what causes these health differences first before attempting to extrapolate the results to humans.”

– Margaret Allen