Snow flies are remarkably cold tolerant. We have observed them running around while their internal body temperature is below -12°C (10°F). This means that snow flies must possess adaptations that allow them to live and move in extreme cold. Understanding adaptation to extreme conditions can provide insight into fundamental biological processes, such as brain and muscle physiology.

In the Tuthill Lab at UW, we are particularly interested in understanding the biophysical mechanisms that allow snow fly neurons to conduct electrical signals at low temperatures. We are using electrophysiology and behavioral analysis to compare the thermal sensitivity of Chionea neurons to those from a related fly that is not cold tolerant (Drosophila). We are also using DNA barcoding to identify the species of the snow flies that we collect.

Our collaborators in the Gallio Lab at Northwestern University and the Stensmyr Lab at Lund University will sequence and analyze the Chionea genome to understand the genetic basis of cold adaptation (work supported by the Crafoord Foundation).

Together, we hope to unlock the biological secrets of how snow flies live so exuberantly in frigid, inhospitable environments. The insights from this work are likely to lead to improved technology for long-term cryogenic preservation of the human brain and may inspire new therapies for treating brain freeze (i.e., ice-cream headache).