Answering The Call For Relevant Organism Modeling In Biology

Review Of Emerging Model Organisms: A Laboratory Manual: Volume 2, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, ISBN 978-087969865-2

Dinner time conversations can often take unexpected turns.  For many a family, the evening meal is a time to share whatever thought happens to cross one’s mind.  Everything from how the day went to what political scandal is stewing in the blogosphere is fair game as long as it does not slow down the most important reason for being at the table which of course is to get on with the task of nourishing our bodies.  When children get pulled in as participants of dinner-time banter, the results can be even more eclectic.  On one recent spring evening my oldest son jumped onto the topic of, dare I say it, biological nomenclature.  His curiosity seemed innocent enough. “Dad”, he asked, “what is the scientific name for wolf?  In Latin I mean”.  Feeling that I was under pressure to live up to my position as the family scientist I quickly fired off a rapid round of facts which I hoped would prove my worth: “Canis lupus.  The killer whale is Orcinus orca, the grizzly bear would be Ursus horribilis and the African clawed toad?  Xenopus laevis”.

In all honesty when I finally got to open Volume 2 of Emerging Model Organisms, published this month by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, I realized how deep I had sunk that evening in my search to impress.  Here was a book that, if truth be told, would put me in my place.  For those who have yet to read the reviews of this new addition to mainstream scientific literature, let me just say that it is a treasure trove of facts and protocols on the use of an exotic cornucopia of organism models in the study of key biological processes.  For the un-initiated such as myself, there are some notable surprises.  The humble Paramecium tetraurelia, for example, is now being used to study small RNA-mediated regulation of eukaryotic gene expression.  Dioscorea (true yams) have found their place in laboratories that are tackling the socio-economic impacts of global famine.  Nematostella vectensis (the Starlet Sea Anemone) shares a large amount of genetic sequence complexity with vertebrates and therefore offers untold opportunities for looking at gene functionality.  And eusocial insects, in particular Apis mellifera (the honey bee) and the 20,000+ species of Formicidae (ants), offer a window into the complexities of social behavior much of which is applicable to our own species. 

My personal favorite, Euprymna scolopes (the Hawaiian Bobtail Squid), has become a valuable commodity for those engaged in the study of animal-bacterial symbiosis.  One strain of marine bacteria, Vibrio fischeri, has risen to new heights of TV stardom thanks to its striking luminosity and its integration into the squid’s light organ.  Co-author and University of Wisconsin developmental biologist Margaret McFall-Ngai calls the Bobtail Squid a “wonderful lab animal” set apart from its cephalopod brethren by its relatively sedentary lifestyle.  It is nevertheless highly susceptible to health issues and must be nurtured with the tender loving care that one would otherwise reserve for a weaning baby.  University of Hawaii zoologist Patricia Lee and colleagues note how “cephalopods present distinct experimental problems in the laboratory.  They are easily injured during capture and handling and are subsequently subject to infections that frequently result in death”.

Still, the title for the most surprising addition to the lineup of emerging model organisms undoubtedly goes to Macropus eugenii, the Australian Tamar Wallaby, which is giving Drosophila researchers a run for their money through its relevance to the study of embryonic development.  The wallaby has been a focal point of reproductive biology since the 1960s and has made a name for itself across a broad spectrum of specialized subject areas: lactation, growth, olfaction, pathology, immunology, digestion, metabolism, endocrinology, placentation, contraception and epigenetics.  Practical dangers include the powerful scratching and biting that the wallaby can deliver during the moment of capture and the subsequent ‘sacking’ (nothing to do with American football) in special bags that without due precaution can lead to overheating on a warm sunny day.  Strict thermoregulation of pouched young is an absolute must following maternal separation. 

The investigative techniques that are covered are highly relevant to the questions that modern-day biologists are asking.  What are the genetic commonalities between diverse forms of life?  How well adapted are these life forms to the habitats that they occupy?  What lessons can we learn from nature in our own efforts to tackle human sociological problems and further enhance quality of life?      In situ hybridization appears frequently as an approach for deconvoluting patterns of gene expression as do immunohistochemical staining, tissue section mounting and embryonic dissection which can be applied to the study of antigen distribution during development.  Pictures and diagrams are bountifully distributed throughout the book bringing yet further clarity to the already-detailed protocols that appear for each model organism.  Troubleshooting suggestions and the extensive introductory sections on the historical background of each organism further enrich the information provided.  The specialized materials and handling requirements that each organism demands are extensively covered in each chapter. 

This year’s Insight Pharma Report entitled Animal Models For Therapeutic Strategies gave us a flavor of some of the ongoing basic research initiatives in drug discovery and disease biology.  C.elegans, Drosophila, rats, mice and zebrafish were highlighted as animal models that were suitable for testing drug efficacy and cancer therapies.  The expansion of this limited suite of models in academic circles will further refine our knowledge of these and other important targets for scientific innovation. For this reason Emerging Model Organisms will undoubtedly serve as a launch-friendly springboard for biologists who are just beginning to strategize over how best to study their biological systems of choice.

Further Reading

Lauren Urban (2010) Supermodels?  The Scientist, March 19th.

Animal Models For Therapeutic Strategies, Insight Pharma Reports, March 2010.

Online version of the Emerging Model Organisms, Volume 2.

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Robert Deyes

Robert has been a Technical Services Scientist at Promega for over 10 years. He also worked for two years as a Technical Advisor at the Paisley, Scotland facility of Life Technologies Inc. After earning his Masters in Medical Genetics from the University of Glasgow, he spent 18 months at the Université Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg, France where he did research into the molecular basis of the inherited disorder Spinal Muscular Atrophy. He also holds a BSc from the University of Portsmouth in England.

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