When Ria Chhabra, a middle school student near Dallas, heard her parents arguing about the value of organic foods, she was inspired to create a science fair project to try to resolve the debate.
Three years later, Ria's exploration of fruit flies and organic foods has not only raised some provocative questions about the health benefits of organic eating, it has also earned the 16-year-old top honors in a national science competition, publication in a respected scientific journal and university laboratory privileges normally reserved for graduate students.
The research, titled "Organically Grown Food Provides Health Benefits to Drosophila melanogaster," tracked the effects of organic and conventional diets on the health of fruit flies. By nearly every measure, including fertility, stress resistance and longevity, flies that fed on organic bananas and potatoes fared better than those who dined on conventionally raised produce.
While the results can't be directly extrapolated to human health, the research nonetheless paves the way for additional studies on the relative health benefits of organic versus conventionally grown foods. Fruit fly models are often used in research because their short life span allows scientists to evaluate a number of basic biological effects over a relatively brief period of time, and the results provide clues for better understanding disease and biological processes in humans.
For her original middle-school science project, Ria evaluated the vitamin C content of organic produce compared with conventionally farmed foods. When she found higher concentrations of the vitamin in organic foods, she decided she wanted to take the experiment further and measure the effects of organic eating on overall health.
She searched the Internet and decided a fruit fly model would be the best way to conduct her experiment. She emailed several professors who maintained fly laboratories asking for assistance. Johannes Bauer, an assistant professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, responded to her inquiry.
Ria performed on the level of a college senior or graduate student, Bauer said. "The seriousness with which she approached this was just stunning," he said.
The project was named among just 30 finalists in the prestigious 2011 Broadcom Masters national science competition. Bauer and an SMU research associate, Santharam Kolli, are listed as co-authors on the research, published in a scientific journal.
Now a sophomore at Clark High School in Plano, Texas, Ria has continued to work in Bauer's lab. For her 10th-grade science fair project she created a model for studying Type 2 diabetes in fruit flies.
Meanwhile, Bauer said the study of organic foods and fruit fly health has raised some important questions that he hopes can be answered in future research. The difference in outcomes among the flies fed different diets could be due to the effects of pesticide and fungicide residue from conventionally raised foods.
Or it could be that the organic-fed flies thrived because of a higher level of nutrients in the organic produce. One intriguing idea raises the question of whether organically raised plants produce more natural compounds to ward off pests and fungi, and whether those compounds offer additional health benefits to flies, animals and humans who consume organic foods. "There are no hard data on that, but it's something we'd like to follow up on," he said.
While far more study needs to be conducted to determine the possible benefits of organic foods on human health, the debate has been settled in the Chhabra household, where Ria's parents no longer argue about the cost of organic food. "All of our fresh produce is organic," she said.