The wild frontier: animal models

Why we need to learn more about the natural history of model organisms...
17 April 2015

Interview with 

Ian Baldwin, Director of Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology


Unlike their divaesque human equivalents, animal models have contributed Animal Model Series, eLifeenormously to biological research over the past few decades. But how does life in the lab compare to life in the wild? And what can researchers gain from knowing much more about the natural history of the organisms that they use in their research? eLife are exploring these questions with a new series of articles called, The Natural History of Model Organisms. Ian Baldwin is the series editor.

Ian - There is very little communication between people who know how to use the incredible, powerful, molecular tools that been developed in the last three decades, and the people who know how to figure out natural histories of organisms and identify them and characterize them in their natural environment. That's a particularly sad situation because right now is one of the first times in the history of biology it's possible to actually utilize all the amazing things that have evolved, to actually analyze them at a molecular level and even be able to use them, because you can take out traits from one organism and put them into another organism. So the reason for this set of articles here is to take the particular organisms that have become the supermodels for the molecular biologists, the ones who've been able to really understand fundamental biological principles by developing an organism and putting all the tools so that you can actually get to the genetic basis of particular traits, and to explore where those organisms came from.

Chris - Why do you think this will solve the problem? Why will having the Claudia Schiffer of the C. elegans world, how is that going to help to solve this problem?

Ian - I think it's going to help solve the problem because amongst model system biologists, they're beginning to run out of things to work on. They're beginning to get a bit bored with the types of questions that you can study when you're only studying Claudia Schiffer. And it turns out that the nearest relatives of Claudia Schiffer actually have other much more interesting traits. I think that we are at a stage when both the ecologists who want to learn and use these molecular tools, as well as the molecular biologists who have been using particular model organisms, want to start to branch out and look at other organisms. So, I think it's a time that's ripe for that, and also it's a time that's right because of the advent of cheap sequencing that's allowing everybody to sequence the genome of every organism that they can, at a reasonable cost. And with the development of these genome editing tools that are coming online, it means that the whole business of being a model organism and a non-model organism is a divide that is becoming blurred, and pretty soon most of biology is going to be able to be accessed in the same way that the handful of models are currently.

Chris - So, a person who comes and picks up these reviews or this sequence of reviews - what are they physically going to experience? How have you approached this?

Ian - We've approached it by asking people who are this sort of this new generation of biologists. Usually, these are biologists who were trained on the molecular side of the divide and are beginning to go out into the field and find the wild relatives of these models. Figuring out where they live and what they do, and how they defend themselves, and what sort of other traits they have, and also to start looking at their nearest relatives. And as we mentioned in the article series here, the ones that were domesticated for laboratory life all seemed to share a particular suite of traits that allow them to be easily domesticated. They're boom and bust type of organisms, they reproduce easily, have very fast growth rates, they're not very finicky about the type of culturing techniques that you have to keep them under. Those are not traits that are shared by the nearest relatives in almost every single one of these model organisms. Those sorts of natural history details are what you're going to find out when you delve into the individual articles.

Chris - When will the items be coming out? What's the sort of style or format of them? What will a person get out of each individual article? How will it help them in their biology?

Ian - There's going to be an introduction that Jane Alfred and I have written to the series. And then, there's going to be a brief exposé on Zebra fish, on maize arabidopsis, on C. elegans - the nematode, and then a couple of microorganisms - E. coli and budding yeast. In each one, an expert will tell a very intriguing vignette about the life history of this model that so many scientists only consider as a reagent-grade organism, not something that lives outside the lab. And I think it's going to enrich their understanding of that organism as they go to the lab and work with it. And also the fact that some of these models all come together in various places. For example, you know, on rotting apples you find not only sometimes yeast but also C. elegans loves rotting apples. And Drosophila of course visits rotting apples, and even C. elegans hitchhikes on Drosophila occasionally in order to catch a ride onto the next rotting apple. So, there's some convergence of these model organisms in the real world with each other the specialists may not have realized.


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