More than models

By Razib Khan | November 29, 2011 1:16 pm

Slate recently had a series up on the use of mice as “model organisms.” In particular, it put the spotlight of some limitations of extrapolating from a mouse to a man (or other species). This is in some ways biology’s “WEIRD” problem. There are always going to be obvious reasons why we’d want to use mice instead of elephants as model organisms, but we might be entering into an era when the fixation on a few species might abate at least somewhat. With that, I point you to a piece in The Scientist (in its final issue I believe), Beyond the Model – How next-generation sequencing technologies will drive a new era of research on non-model organisms:

Central goals of biology have always been to understand the basis for diversity within and among species, and to understand how the environment can influence the expression of different traits. These emerging genetic approaches enable studies in a greatly expanded number of organisms and potentially allow genetic approaches to be applied in natural habitats. The use of model organisms is not dead, however. The utilization of previously generated resources and continued development of model systems will support and facilitate research in non-models. But with the ability to address molecular mechanisms in the natural world, we can truly begin to understand how all of these factors interact to generate the biological diversity that motivated the early scientists and continues to inspire us today.

There is a reason for the hype that the 21st century will be to biology what the 20th was to physics.

COMMENTS NOTE: Any comment which misrepresents the material in this post will result in banning without warning. So you should probably stick to direct quotes in lieu of reformulations of what you perceive to be my intent in your own words. For example, if you start a sentence with “so what you’re trying to say….”, you’re probably going to get banned. I said what I tried or wanted to say in the post. Period.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics, Genomics
MORE ABOUT: Genetics, Genomics
  • Paul

    There is a reason for the hype that the 21st century will be to biology what the 20th was to physics.

    This is the reason why I encouraged my daughter to pursue a biology major in college, vs. one in the physical sciences. Not that my suggestion was anything but a minor perturbation of her own desires, mind you.

    She’s enjoying it hugely, and I’m enjoying that transition period when a child’s knowledge outstrips the parent’s.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #1, one minor caution: a math, physics, and chemistry, background can be quite useful and give on a leg up in graduate work in biology.

  • Andy

    “But with the ability to address molecular mechanisms in the natural world, we can truly begin to understand how all of these factors interact to generate the biological diversity that motivated the early scientists and continues to inspire us today.”

    I would add that models are still very important (possibly indispensable) tools to “address molecular mechanisms”, but these models can be in vitro, in silico as well as in vivo.

    I think I understand that the authors believe in the idea of obtaining “hypotheses generating” data from sequencing projects in natural environments. On the other side of this coin, it will not always be possible to test hypotheses in this setting.

  • Dan

    “This is the reason why I encouraged my daughter to pursue a biology major in college, vs. one in the physical sciences.”

    I wouldn’t encourage it. There’s currently a glut of postdocs currently stuck in the system, making <$40,000/yr,despite having over a decade of post-bac education, waiting for PI positions to open. Less than 15% of biology PhDs are obtaining permanent academic positions. The pharmaceutical industry, long the "back up" plan for many biology PhDs, is slowly moving all of its research positions to places where they can get away with paying employees <$25,000/yr. On top of that, success in biology is one of the few fields that depends almost completely on luck. You have to be lucky enough to get a project in grad school where your hypothesis proves correct, black swans don't happen, and it all comes together in a publishable form in less than five years. Failure to do so, even if you graduate, will result in an uphill battle to obtain a position.

  • DK

    Surprisingly, the authors of the Scientist piece are even more into hype than traditional journalists.

    “…Next generation sequencing technologies have emerged as an important catalyst for a new revolution in biological understanding”.

    Catalyst? Well, maybe – in the future. Because there has not been a revolution in *understanding* so far.

    “and as a result, an ongoing explosion in our understanding of the genetic basis of variation among individuals”

    Really? “Explosion in our understanding”?

    The whole vision of ‘we’ll sequence an organism and from that understand what makes it different from another’ needs to be thoroughly validated before proclaiming that the shiny heights are within reach. If I am not mistaken, the missing heritability continues to be the dominant genetic factor observed thus far.

  • Tom Bri

    I have always thought there were sharp limitations on mice as proxies for humans in research. Nocturnal, subterranean, seed-eating rodents, severely inbred and selected for life in little cages and for mutant traits like albinism. Who knows what all traits were accidentally selected for. Obvious why, of course, but most any kind of primate would have been better. But, mice are cheap.

  • 5371

    When someone uses the word ‘truly’ it’s usually bullshit.

  • Paul

    Dan: she’s aiming to go to med school. The demand for MDs is still substantial, I think.

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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