Washington Update

NIGMS Research Organism Workshop Highlights Unconventional Species

By: Naomi Charalambakis
Thursday, September 26, 2019

On September 12, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) hosted “The Research Organism Landscape: Choosing the Best Organism for Your Scientific Question,” focused on the scientific and operational aspects of choosing research organisms. Discussants emphasized how several less common research organisms provide opportunities to pursue new directions in biology.

Using the term “research organism” rather than “model organism” – which encourages the inclusion of unique research animals – was an overarching theme of the day. Alejandro S├ínchez Alvarado, PhD, Scientific Director of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research and President of FASEB member Society for Developmental Biology, gave the keynote. Dr. Alvarado emphasized that while science has made remarkable progress in studying just 0.00009 percent of all living species, much of the biology we need to understand human life has yet to be discovered.

Dr. Alvarado provided examples of biological discoveries made in a wide range of species that scientists tend to overlook. For example, telomeres – protective regions located at the ends of DNA strands that are implicated in the aging process – were discovered in protists, eukaryotic organisms that cannot be classified as plant, animal, or fungus.

Another example was Dr. Alvarado’s own research on molecular regeneration using the flatworm planaria. Even after repeated segmentations, these organisms retain the capacity to regenerate and reproduce. Dr. Alvarado suggests that this mechanism can inform the process by which the human body replenishes a variety of cell types including skin, liver, and bone.

Finally, Dr. Alvarado encouraged the scientific community to take advantage of biological processes in our own backyards – researchers must not become complacent in pursuing novel biological systems. This sparked a lively discussion among the panelists and NIGMS staff about the responsibility of professional societies, institutions, and agencies to foster research with unconventional organisms among trainees. NIGMS noted its commitment to funding an extensive variety of basic science research; thus far, research with rare research organisms is funded at a similar rate as commonly used research organisms such as Drosophila and Zebrafish.

To watch the event, visit the NIH Videocast. For more information about NIGMS funding rates for rare organism research,  read the agency’s Feedback Loop blog post.