Scientists often use research organisms to study life. Examples range from simple organisms like bacteria to more complex ones such as mice. NIGMS funds studies of research organisms to understand biological processes that are common to all organisms, including humans. Errors in these fundamental processes can cause disease, and better understanding of these malfunctions can aid in the development of potential treatments.
Research organisms may also reveal novel biological processes that can lead to important scientific or medical technologies. For example, researchers studying interactions between viruses and bacteria made a discovery that led to the CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) gene-editing system, which was recognized by the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry.
As computers have advanced over the past few decades, researchers have been able to work with larger and more complex datasets than ever before. The science of using computers to investigate biological data is called bioinformatics, and it’s helping scientists make important discoveries, such as finding versions of genes that affect a person’s risk for developing various types of cancer. Many scientists believe that almost all biologists will use bioinformatics to some degree in the future.
However, bioinformatics isn’t always included in college biology programs, and many of today’s researchers received their training before bioinformatics was widely taught. To address these gaps, the bioinformatics cores of the five Northeast IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBREs)—located in Maine, Rhode Island, Delaware, Vermont, and New Hampshire—have worked together to offer basic bioinformatics training to students and researchers. The collaboration started in 2009 with a project where researchers sequenced the genome of a fish called the little skate (Leucoraja erinacea) and used the data to develop trainings.
The tiny roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans is one of the most common research organisms—creatures scientists use to study life. While C. elegans may seem drastically different from humans, it shares many genes and molecular pathways with us. Viewed with a microscope, the worm can also be surprisingly beautiful. Aside from the stunning imagery, these examples from our Image and Video Gallery show how C. elegans helps scientists advance our understanding of living systems and find new ways to improve our health.
Credit: Keir Balla and Emily Troemel, University of California San Diego.
This C. elegans has been infected with microsporidia (purple), parasites closely related to fungi. The yellow shapes are the worm’s gut cells, and the blue dots are nuclei. Some microsporidia can infect people, so studying the parasites in worms could help researchers devise strategies to prevent or treat infections.
Wildlife photos can be truly stunning, and cute cat pictures are a cornerstone of the internet. But zooming in on the early lives of fish, insects, and worms can have equally wonderful results. Using powerful microscopes, researchers are revealing the complexity and beauty of animal development.
Credit: James E. Hayden, The Wistar Institute, Philadelphia, PA.
This image captures the spiral-shaped ovary of an anglerfish in cross section. Once matured, these eggs will be released in a gelatinous, floating mass. For some species of anglerfish, this egg mass can be up to 3 feet long and include nearly 200,000 eggs.
A family of common marmosets. Credit: Francesco Veronesi. CC BY-SA 2.0 .
Fatherhood takes many forms across the animal kingdom. For instance, mammalian fathers are often uninvolved, with only about 10 percent helping to raise their offspring. However, that small percentage of males often makes valuable contributions to their offspring’s upbringing. For instance, cotton-top tamarin and common marmoset dads have the responsibility of carrying babies—which are typically born as sets of twins—almost constantly from birth until independence.
In other groups of animals, fathers are much more likely to share responsibilities with mothers or even act as sole caregivers. Male and female birds contribute equally to raising chicks in most cases. But in rheas and emus—both large, flightless birds—fathers incubate eggs and take care of hatchlings on their own.
And most fish don’t care for their young, but out of the species that do, between one-third and one-half rely on fathers parenting alone. Perhaps the most well-known example is the seahorse, where the male becomes pregnant, carrying his mate’s fertilized eggs in a pouch on his belly until they hatch. Alison M. Bell, Ph.D. , professor of evolution, ecology, and behavior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is investigating paternal care in another fish species where fathers raise offspring solo: the three-spined stickleback. Her work not only helps us understand the value of paternal care for sticklebacks, but also contributes to growing evidence across many species that fatherhood changes males on a physiological level.
Insects vastly outnumber people on our planet. Some are pests, but many are key parts of their ecosystems, and some may even hold secrets for developing new materials that researchers could use in the medical field. Michael Kanost, Ph.D. , a professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, has been researching the biochemistry of insects for more than 30 years. His lab studies the tobacco hornworm, a mosquito that carries malaria, and the red flour beetle to better understand insect exoskeletons and immune systems.
Over the past 12 months, we’ve explored a variety of topics in genetics, cell biology, chemistry, and careers in the biomedical sciences. As we ring in the new year, we bring you our top three posts of 2019. If your favorite is missing, let us know what it is in the comments section below!
Hawaiian bobtail squid. Credit: Dr. Satoshi Shibata.
Studying research organisms, such as those featured in this post, teaches us about ourselves. These amazing creatures, which have some traits similar to our own, may hold the key to preventing and treating an array of complex diseases.
Viravuth (“Voot”) Yin, associate professor of regenerative biology and medicine at MDI Biological Laboratory and chief scientific officer at Novo Biosciences, Inc., in Bar Harbor, Maine. Credit: MDI Biological Laboratory.
In 1980, a week after his 6th birthday, Viravuth (“Voot”) Yin immigrated with his mother, grandfather, and three siblings from Cambodia to the United States. Everything they owned fit into a single, 18-inch carry-on bag. They had to build new lives from almost nothing. So, it’s perhaps fitting that Yin studies regeneration, the fascinating ability of some animals, such as salamanders, sea stars, and zebrafish, to regrow damaged body parts, essentially from scratch.
Yin’s path wasn’t always smooth. His family settled in Hartford, Connecticut, near an uncle who had been granted asylum during the Vietnam War. Yin got into a lot of trouble in school, trying to learn a new culture and fit in. Things improved when his mother moved him and his siblings to West Hartford, well known for its strong schools.
Dr. Melissa Wilson.
Credit: Chia-Chi Charlie Chang.
The X and Y chromosomes, also known as sex chromosomes, differ greatly from each other. But in two regions, they are practically identical, said Melissa Wilson , assistant professor of genomics, evolution, and bioinformatics at Arizona State University.
What do you have in common with rodents, birds, and reptiles? A lot more than you might think. These creatures have organs and body systems very similar to our own: a skeleton, digestive tract, brain, nervous system, heart, network of blood vessels, and more. Even so-called “simple” organisms such as insects and worms use essentially the same genetic and molecular pathways we do. Studying these organisms provides a deeper understanding of human biology in health and disease, and makes possible new ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat a wide range of conditions.
Historically, scientists have relied on a few key organisms, including bacteria, fruit flies, rats, and mice, to study the basic life processes that run bodily functions. In recent years, scientists have begun to add other organisms to their toolkits. Many of these newer research organisms are particularly well suited for a specific type of investigation. For example, the small, freshwater zebrafish grows quickly and has transparent embryos and see-through eggs, making it ideal for examining how organs develop. Organisms such as flatworms, salamanders, and sea urchins can regrow whole limbs, suggesting they hold clues about how to improve wound healing and tissue regeneration in humans.