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Fly Girls (and Boys): 'The Fly Room' Opens Up a Pioneering DNA Lab in Film and Architecture

Alexis Gambis, who founded the Imagine Science Film Festival after getting his PhD in genetics and a masters in film, has reconstructed the legendary fruit fly laboratory where many modern-day genetics discoveries were made.

by Ruth Reader
Jul 22 2013, 4:57pm
In "The Fly Room," a young Betsey Bridges (Zoe Brooks) in the lab where her dad explored DNA

Back on the campaign trail in 2008, Sarah Palin made a quip about the need to cut earmarked spending for pet projects that were not directly benefiting the public—you know, like fruit fly research in Paris.

“She insulted me on many levels,” says Alexis Gambis, a Paris native who is culminating ten years' worth of research on the fruit fly with a Sleep No More-style exhibit called The Fly Room, opening this week in Brooklyn.

Gambis, who founded the Imagine Science Film Festival after getting his PhD in genetics from Rockefeller University and a masters in film from NYU, has reconstructed the legendary fruit fly laboratory at Columbia University where many modern-day genetics discoveries were made. The construct served as a film set for his feature length production of the same name, and will also serve as the main setting for the exhibition.

Gambis can’t point to a moment when the fly room became his obsession, but it was fly boy Calvin Bridges who set his interest in motion. “He was the one that was involved in isolating all the mutations, like new mutations in fruit flies,” says Gambis. Known for his work with sex-linked traits in fruit flies and for developing a crude basis for gene-mapping called the "totem pole," Bridges was also a captivating character with a complicated personal life. A rumored womanizer, he was known to carry a little red book detailing his conquests, in which he rated each one like a turn-of-the-century Arthur Fonzarelli.

Most of what we know about modern genetics stems from the study of Drosophila-melanogaster (fruit flies) at the fly lab. Besides Bridges and the head of the lab, Thomas Hunt Morgan, three other scientists were involved: Alfred Sturtevant, Hermann Muller, and the lesser-known Edith Wallace. Wallace, who had a PhD from Mount Holyoke, was the lab’s illustrator, responsible for drawing all the different fly mutations that resulted from the genetic crosses. But she received very little, if any recognition for her work.

An illustration of Drosophila-melanogaster by Edith Wallace

A key part of the lab's work was Bridges' gene-map, which was essentially the first mapping of DNA. In 1914 Bridges proved that genes were actual things, physically located on a chromosome. He developed his totem pole, based on the enlarged, multi-stranded chromosomes present in drosophila during their larval stages, to show the exact physical location of a gene.

Using a microscope, you can physically see the drosophila's genetic coding on each of its chromosome. Bridges was able to determine what each band meant, or at least 1,024 of them. He translated his findings to a replica of a chromosome that was essentially a tower with different bands representing various genetic codes. The physical map was a breakthrough, giving scientists a visual guide to genetic sequencing and recombination for the first time. In five years' time, the lab developed a chromosome theory of heredity worthy of the 1933 Nobel Prize.

Calvin Bridges's "totem pole," a four-sided working and valuation map showing locations of mutant genes and their relative usefulness for mapping

Gambis was a student at Rockefeller when he first latched onto the idea of a project about the lab's discovery, nearly ten years ago. In 2009, a year after founding founding his film festival, he began researching a potential feature-length film about the lab, and made his own discovery: Calvin Bridges's daughter was still alive. "That's how the story began," he says of his encounter with Betsy Bridges, now in her nineties. "I started interviewing her and she told me that she was in the fly room when she was about ten."

Narrated by Betsy, the film centers around her account of her two-day experience in the fly room and her strange relationship to her father. Gambis admits that he cherry picked events and the finding of certain genetic crosses into these two days to dramatize Bridges' discoveries and make the story more visually engaging. Still, he says that artistic choices didn't come at the expense of the science. While much of it will be familiar to those who've taken a basic high school genetics course, Gambis promises that there's plenty to satisfy students of Mendel too.

Betsy, Calvin Bridges' daughter, narrates "The Fly Room"

“The big thing about bridging art and science is not to do art-science, not to dilute it," he says. "It's not like doing petri-dish art, applying science to do art. There’s actual research happening. Its important to have them coexist and not force fusions."

With a cast made up of actual scientists—including neuroscientist Joe LeDoux and Stuart Firestein, the head of Columbia's biology department—the film lies somewhere between documentary and surrealism, relying heavily on interviews with Ms. Bridges. "I didn’t want to make a traditional biopic,” says Gambis. He finished shooting this month, and after spending the next few months editing it in Dubai, where he's teaching at NYU's new campus, Gambis intends to take it through mainstream film festivals, not niche science forums.

The project has come together with help from art world notables. Artist Dustin Yellin donated Pioneer Works for the building of the set and exhibition; Spike Lee, Gambis' advisor at NYU’s Film School, gave the project a $10,000 grant. A gracious Gambis bestowed Lee with a fruit fly drawing that now hangs in his office next to a photograph of Michael Jackson.

The Fly Room crew reviewing clips at NYU Tisch, with director Alexis Gambis, bearded, center.

The installation, which opens on July 24th and will stay open through August, will offer people access to the main Fly Room set, a dark laboratory littered with fruit fly-inhabited milk bottles (compliments of Gambis's old lab at Rockefeller). At various times actors may be at work in the space and visitors can expect some interesting multimedia components, like audio and video from the film along with weird fly projections.

Gambis has also lined up a lecture series, featuring one scientist a week for five weeks. Dr. Claude Desplan will talk about color and vision in drosophila, Dr. Michael Young will describe circadian rhythms, and Dr. Lawrence Brody of the National Institutes of Health will discuss genomics and human disease.

The programs underscore the importance of fruit flies in understanding our own biology, says Gambis. But as a whole, the installation is not just about the science, but the people behind it, Gambis says. “I'm always making sure the science is a backdrop. You’re never being lectured. It can be very complex science, but it's almost like music."

The Fly Room is at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, NY, from July 24th until August 20th, 2013

spike lee
Columbia University
the arts
alexis gambis
joe ledoux
the fly room