Nautilus

Paradox of model organisms in biology

The use of model organisms in research will continue despite their shortcomings, writes Philip Hunter in the September issue of EMBO Reports (9, 717-720; 2008). From his article:

During the 1940s and 1950s, in the early days of molecular biology, biologists tackled the enormous problem of explaining how cells work at the molecular level by applying the tried and tested tools of reductionism. They reduced the complexity of the task in two ways: they focused on a few central molecular mechanisms—replication, transcription, protein synthesis and the control of gene activity—and they chose to use the simplest organisms—bacteria and bacteriophages—in which to study these phenomena. Over time and with more knowledge to hand, biological research expanded to the study of more complex systems, which required the increasing use of higher organisms, including Caenorhabditis elegans, Drosophila, Arabidopsis, zebrafish and rodents.

These model organisms became the irreplaceable tools of fundamental biological and clinical research, and helped scientists to amass an enormous amount of knowledge. However, several high-profile clinical trials in which the use of model organisms failed to predict the serious side effects of some drugs, coupled with the prospect of using human stem-cell lines in trials and the growing sophistication of in silico methods, have all cast doubt on the future use of model organisms. This is the case at least for research into human diseases, which, after all, drives much of the research in molecular biology.

Animal rights activists have seized on this argument, but show little interest in appreciating the huge contribution that model organisms have made to molecular biology. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that research on animals has taught us nearly all we know about cell biology—be it transcriptional control, RNA quality control or the structure of chromatin.

See also the News Feature in Nature 454, 682-685 (2008), which reports on questions raised about the appropriateness of mouse and other animal models in some neurodegenerative diseases.

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