The findings were published today in the journal Nature by scientists from Oregon State University, Stanford University and Brandeis University.
The research was done with the gene "fruitless," which is present in both male and female fruit flies and some other insect species. Ordinarily, only in males does this gene result in the creation of proteins that guide male sexual behavior patterns such as approaching females, tapping them, singing to them and performing little courtship dances.
However, through genetic manipulations the research group of university scientists was able to cause these same proteins to be produced in females, and when they were, the females showed classic patterns of male sexual behavior.
"When this genetic process was triggered in females, they acted as if they were masculinized," said Barbara Taylor, a professor of zoology at OSU. "And this was a single gene expressed in just a very small number of cells, controlling a surprisingly complex behavior. In a physical sense the females looked perfectly normal, but they acted like males and, if they were physically able to, I would not be surprised if they would have attempted to mate other females."
In related fashion, the researchers found, male fruit flies that had the "fruitless" gene inactivated failed to show normal male sexual behavior. But most of their other non-sexual behaviors, such as locomotion, flight or grooming, were unaffected.
According to Taylor, what's becoming clear is that genetic mechanisms set the stage for complex neuronal development that ultimately affect behavior.