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Exploring The Fly Room and the foundation of modern genetics

Amy Kraft
February 11, 2014

The fruit flies are everywhere. Thousands are trapped inside glass milk jars stuffed with gauze, while others circle the small laboratory's ceiling or gather around the shelves crammed with brass-knobbed microscopes. Three dusty wooden desks are cluttered with notepads, pencils, magnifying glasses, and metal tins of Chesterfield tobacco.

The room is undoubtedly a mess, but it's a beautifully orchestrated mess meant to replicate a laboratory that existed 100 years ago. The original lab at Columbia University, nicknamed "The Fly Room," was the home base for scientists Thomas Hunt Morgan and Calvin Bridges, among others, who conducted their famous experiments on fruit flies that laid the foundation for modern genetics.

Calvin Bridges, 1927 (Courtesy of Betsey Black. Collection of the Black family)

Today's Fly Room was temporarily housed in Pioneer Works, a warehouse art space in Red Hook, Brooklyn, in New York City. It was fastidiously created by scientist-turned-filmmaker Alexis Gambis for his feature film The Fly Room, which tells the story of Betsey, the precocious daughter of geneticist Calvin Bridges, who uncovers secrets about her father while visiting his lab.

Gambis, who is also the founder and artistic director of Imagine Science Films, became obsessed with fruit flies while studying them in the lab as a PhD student at Rockefeller University. He said that the more he learned about The Fly Room and the eccentric scientists who worked there, the more he wanted to share the story with the public. A teaser of the film was shown at the Imagine Science Films Festival last fall and Gambis is submitting it to film festivals this year.

To hear about how this filmmaker got the story, and about his transition from scientist to filmmaker, listen to the podcast posted above.

Photos of The Fly Room as reconstructed in Brooklyn, N.Y., and shown to the public during the summer of 2013.

(Photos by Amy Kraft)

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