model organisms

Since Mendel first starting cross-pollinating pea plants in the 1800s, certain plants and animals have been used to study basic genetics and physiology. Because all living things on earth have common ancestors, their genomes and the mechanisms of growth and development have many similarities. This makes it possible to study one organism to learn information that can be applied to other organisms—including humans. Organisms that are used to learn about our common biology are called model organisms. Popular animal model organisms include the mouse and the fruit fly, while much has been learned about plants by studying corn.

The more closely related we are to a particular model organism, the more scientists can directly apply research findings to humans. But no model organism is perfect. While many treatments for human diseases have been discovered first in mice, curing cancer in a rodent doesn’t always lead to effective treatments for people. With recent advances in high-tech automated technologies, studies of the genetic causes of disease can often be made directly with individual human genomes, although model organisms will continue to be important for experimental biology.

Living Tools for Research
How are different organisms used in research? Move your mouse over the pictures and click to find out.
Phage Plants Nematode Fruit Fly Rodents Humans

Certain organisms seem tailor-made for particular lines of research, with economics, ease of handling, and a core knowledge base from the work of others often playing a part in which plant or animal a scientist will choose to study.

Watch the movies below to see two examples of how scientists design their experiments and gather data.

Zach Mainen

Zachary Mainen, a neuroscientist at Cold Spring Harbor is investigating decision making and brain function using rats, classic model organisms for psychological studies of learning behavior.
(Watch QuickTime movie)
(Watch RealMedia Movie)

Zachary explains how decision making in rats could eventually help us understand human conflicts.
(Hear QuickTime clip)

Tim Tully

Tim Tully, a research biologist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, uses the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster to discover genes involved in memory formation, in part because genetic maps already existed for Drosophila.
(Watch QuickTime movie)
(Watch RealMedia Movie)

Tim Tully comments on making the leap from studying how flies learn to improving the human condition.
(Hear QuickTime clip)



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