A fly on the wall’s view on genes

12 February 2016

The genetics unit is one of the highlights of high school biology, during which many of us pore over chapters and chapters of research done on one small bug: Drosophila melanogaster. Commonly know as the fruit fly, these tiny little insects are nothing more than a nuisance to most of us. But to some, they are three-millimetre-long goldmines for genetic research. 

Fruit flies have been used as a model organism in genetics and developmental biology for nearly a century, ideal for their short life cycles, high fecundity, and ease of maintenance in large numbers. The genetic expressions of several human diseases have recognisable matches in fruit fly genomes and protein sequences, making them an invaluable genetic model for study and treatment processes.

Making such research possible is Dr Cain Yam, founder and president of BestGene Inc., which specialises in developing transgenic model systems, or genetically tailored Drosophila, and providing services ranging from DNA preparation and embryo microinjection to phenotype screening. When it comes to lab testing, most people think of mice which, while closer to humans genetically, are cost and time prohibitive. Drosophila samples, with their low cost and rapid life cycles, are a key step in many genetic testing processes. “If you have a drug library to screen for a degenerative disease, it usually takes many trials and errors to get a promising lead,” Yam explains. With Drosophila, it takes anywhere from a few weeks to months to make the requested modifications, yielding a significantly smaller sample size for testing before moving on to mice or humans.

Though many academics do collaborate with or move on to industry positions, Yam’s path is interesting. After completing a PhD in biochemistry, he continued his research as a Croucher postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology, specialising in cell death. “The research wasn’t smooth, and there weren’t many results, but it did bring me and Drosophila together,” he laughs. Individually crafting the genetic variations required of Drosophila samples was time and labor consuming, diverting expertise and contributing to delayed experiments in the lab. Yam’s own experience and conversations with colleagues showed that this was a common frustration, sparking an idea. 

Yam says he always planned to transition to industry after his postdoctoral work, but setting up an independent research firm was still unexpected. Previously, everyone made their own Drosophila samples, but having an outsourced service such as BestGene allows for much more specific and efficient sample sets. “There was a definite need, and the more I talked to people, the more this idea took shape,” he remarks, “This way, I get to be involved in some of my favourite aspects of biology and help make some real breakthroughs possible, without having to worry about publishing papers!” As the head of a service company, Yam mixes his academic background with business, staying informed of new protocols, methods, and ideas to stay competitive.

"The flies are strictly for the office, not bait."

Looking ahead, Yam is excited as only a scientist can be. Older gene modification only allowed the addition of genes, which could be removed in later generations; a far cry from the very subtle, specific changes BestGene technicians are currently able to make. Editing genes, making slight changes to some while leaving others untouched, has opened the door to more progressive, effective testing, and scientists are working to perfect methods of editing whole genomes. Yam’s own plans include expanding BestGene’s capacity from Drosophila to more model organisms, such as mice, and to grow its Drosophila expertise to focus on drug screening platforms. Vertically, he hopes to add on work around more fundamental biology, and someday to become an independent testing lab. Certainly a lot to ponder, as Yam often does while out fishing, but “mostly further out, for tuna and sea bass,” he hurries to add, “the flies are strictly for the office, not bait.”

Dr Cain Yam was awarded a Croucher scholarship in 1999 during his PhD in biochemistry at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and a fellowship in 2001 during his postdoctoral work at the California Institute of Technology. Yam founded BestGene Inc. in 2004 and has served as its president since then.