MBL Fellows Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado and Amy Gladfelter share their thoughts on nontraditional model organisms, particularly the ones they work with at MBL and at their institutes.
By Vivien Marx
Beyond the well-known pantheon of model organisms are others. A shift is underway to level the playing field.
For the pantheon of model organisms, there’s a wealth of data. Some labs choose to work with less well-known research organisms even though fewer resources are available.
“What model do you work on?” is a question that can start a spirited conversation at a conference networking event. The query might lead to feigned interest and the chat fizzles. But social situations of this kind, once they return after the pandemic, need not unfold in such a polarized way. In some ways, history is coming full circle: studying diversity and complexity is modern. Many labs do so by working with organisms not in the pantheon of classic models.
Historically, as University California, Irvine biologist Rowland Davis noted1, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, amid a growing appreciation for evolutionary mechanisms, biologists used observational studies to tease out patterns that underpinned diversity, complexity and organismal development. The twentieth century’s advent of genetics led to experimentalists focusing on inheritance, and they used a few model organisms to do so. Corn was set up as a model in 1900, mouse and fruit fly a few years later; others followed. Research on species outside the pantheon of models continued but faded from view. Over time, notes Davis, methods were developed that are used to expand on the insight from the few ‘genetically domesticated’ model organisms. “The advent of genomics frees geneticists from their confinement to single species.” Now, functional and comparative analysis of genes and entire genomes are taking twenty-first-century biologists back to probing diversity and complexity in organisms. Read more …