Fruit flies may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a lab focused on sub-atomic particles and located two kilometers underground, but recent work from Laurentian University’s Thomas Merritt may change that. Merritt’s research group uses flies to study genetics and metabolism and has recently turned their attention to the effects of working in a mine, specifically working deep underground. The unique features that make SNOLAB an ideal location for studying subatomic particles, a controlled environment deep underground, also make it an ideal location for studying the biological response to pressure.

Working underground means working under higher atmospheric pressure and the deeper we mine, the higher the pressure – and mines are going deeper and deeper in search of resources. Mining companies are interested in understanding physical responses to working under higher pressure in order to address the effects and support a healthier workforce.

In SNOLAB, the atmospheric pressure is approximately 20% greater than on the surface. Merritt and his students have been taking flies down to SNOLAB to mimic working in a mining environment. Using techniques they developed for studying metabolic responses in flies, they are measuring the response to mining pressures across 1000s of individual metabolites (sugars, amino acids, lipids, etc). The work is in the early stages, but suggests that at least 10% of metabolites change with even a single trip down to mining depths. The long-term effects of this change aren’t known, and are a central question in Merritt’s work. Ultimately, Merritt and his students hope that through understanding this response in flies they can help to develop strategies to address the changes observed to make mining, and any work done under high atmospheric pressure, safer and healthier 

Merritt Lab website