Model organisms in the wild: beyond the laboratory
April 1, 2015 8:40 AM   Subscribe

In biology, model organisms are the workhorse species in which most biological science gets done: fruit flies (D. melanogaster), house mice (M. musculus), shale cress (A. thaliana), zebra fish (D. rerio), nematodes (C. elegans), yeast (S. cerevisiae), and bacteria (E. coli.) They are science's heavy hitters... in the lab. But most scientists know almost nothing about how these species behave in the wild, outside of the context of humans. ELife's new series on the natural history of model species aims to change that. So far, they have published on the natural history of zebra fish, E. coli, and nematodes, with more to follow.
posted by sciatrix (5 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
This is a fun project. When I was in grad school, one of the evolutionary ecology labs studied the evolution of species of Arabadopsis, and they always joked about taking the molecular biologists to their greenhouses, plots, and field sites just once so that they would remember that they were actually studying a plant.
posted by hydropsyche at 8:46 AM on April 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

I used to work with a lab that focused on evolution of non-melanogaster Drosophila species. To that end, they used to collect wild flies of their focal species from all over the world and make outbred lines so they could study geographical differentiation. I still remember the head of the lab going to a conference to share the work and coming back, exasperated, and saying that she'd been asked which standardized inbred lines she'd used and where she'd ordered them by some of the melanogaster bench people.

I don't think that I can explain enough how weird it is to me how little that a lot of model species biologists think about the life of their organisms outside the lab. Not all of them, by any means. But a lot.
posted by sciatrix at 10:00 AM on April 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

Nifty. I'd love to see ones on amphipods and/or copepods.
posted by bonehead at 10:11 AM on April 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I can only comment on mice, since that is (or was until recently) my field. We actually known quite a bit about the genetics of wild mice and how the laboratory mouse is related to its wild ancestors (disclaimer: self-citing), but as sciatrix says, we know very little about their behavior in the wild, save for when they cause problems. Laboratory mice came from pet mice, so they had already been selectively bred for docility, and I can only imagine that institutional breeders have (perhaps unintentionally) continued that trend, so most of us assume that the behaviors of laboratory mice are not representative of their wild counterparts. Some groups have been studying this directly, but I'm glad eLife is calling greater attention to the question.
posted by infinitemonkey at 5:32 AM on April 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Great post, thanks! It's interesting to think about just how domesticated even the microbial lab strains are. Looking through the history of these microbes you find all kinds of drastic things that had to be done. Mating type switching (yeast can exist as either of two different haploid cell types, or as diploids; wild yeast switch randomly between the two different haploid cell types and then mate with each other which totally messes up your genetics) and flocculation (sticking together in a way that precludes continuous culture) had to be bred out of S. cerevisiae, for instance. Most lab strains don't even do pseudohyphal growth -- that's an entire lifestyle that's just gone from S288c.

I did my grad work on microbial metabolism and at one point some other people in my lab were getting very weird results and had to go back through the history of the most-commonly used lab strains of E. coli (not even the ones used for cloning, which are even more broken) and found events that included several rounds of massive irradiation [!], resulting in things like very weird and specific nutritional requirements that had nothing to do with the lifestyle of its ancestor. Lab E. coli is really the pug dog to the wild isolate's grey wolf.
posted by en forme de poire at 1:10 PM on April 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

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