EMBO workshop Beyond the standard

EMBO Workshop: Move over, mouse!

Pythons, Tasmanian devils, naked mole rats and other equally surprising species may hold answers to some of biomedicine’s biggest questions on heart disease, stroke and aging. Researchers from more than 20 countries are gathering in Berlin to share their experiences working with “non-model organisms.”

The Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC), together with the European Molecular Biology Organization, is hosting a workshop “Beyond the standard: Non-model vertebrates in biomedicine” Sept. 17-20. Researchers are gathering at the MDC to share their research findings and experiences working with species not normally found in the lab, from voles to bats, pythons and whales.

Most biomedical research is done using a select few “model organisms” – primarily, mice, zebrafish, fruit flies, nematode worms and yeast. These species are the workhorses of biomedical science. There are many benefits when thousands of labs all over the world work with the same species; a standard is established, variation is reduced, experiments can be replicated and findings confirmed.

But there is a serious drawback.

“You can spend years and years studying something in mice, take it to humans and it just doesn’t work,” said Jane Reznick, a molecular biologist in MDC’s Molecular Physiology of Somatic Sensation Lab. “You are back to square one.”

That’s why a growing number of researchers are branching out to look for answers or solutions in other animals, including pythons, bats, whales, voles, Tasmanian devils and naked mole rats. In the research community, they are called non-model organisms.

An expanding field

For what is believed to be the first time, researchers from more than 20 countries on six continents are coming together to share how non-model organisms are helping researchers shed new light on old biomedical questions.

For example:

  • How voles experience grief
  • How naked mole rats live so long, don’t experience pain and thrive under low-oxygen conditions
  • How the python heart can change its size after eating a large meal
  • How the pouched rat can sniff out bombs and tuberculosis
  • How a spiny mouse can regenerate up to 60% of its skin
  • How genome architecture contributes to different traits like intersexuality and limb morphogenesis

Already more than 100 people are expected to attend, and at least 26 species will be discussed over the four-day workshop. Registration for the workshop will be open until 16 September.

Historically we’ve been limited by available tools. Now we can ask a question and pick an animal best suited to answer this question, or ask a question we’ve not been able to before.
Alison Barker
Dr. Alison Barker Scientist, Molecular Physiology of Somatic Sensation Lab

New tools

The field of non-model organism research has rapidly expanded over the past ten years as new tools have made studying DNA of organisms much easier and cheaper. The advent of induced pluripotent stem cell technology and the gene-editing tool Crispr/Cas9 enables teams to work with cells and tissues in a petri dish, rather than keeping whole organisms in the lab.

“Historically we’ve been limited by available tools,” said Alison Barker, a molecular biologist in MDC’s Molecular Physiology of Somatic Sensation Lab. “Now we can ask a question and pick an animal best suited to answer this question, or ask a question we’ve not been able to before.”

Evolution’s solutions

While growing, the field is still small. Any lab working on a non-model organism is pioneering new territory. There are no lab manuals or instructions on how to work with these animals. Barker, Reznick and Professor Gary Lewin, who heads the Molecular Physiology of Somatic Sensation Lab, wanted to organize the workshop so researchers could share not just their findings, but their insights into what it is like working with their chosen non-model organism.

For example, the Lewin Lab has spent 15 years working with naked mole rats, an underground-dwelling African rodent that has some extraordinary traits. Naked mole rats are incredibly long-lived for a rodent, the oldest has lived 36 years in captivity. They don’t seem to get cancer nor experience certain types of pain. In the wild, they live underground in burrows with up to 300 individuals. They have adapted to thriving in this extremely low-oxygen environment. The Lewin Lab is investigating the molecular mechanisms behind this adaptation and how it might inform treatments for humans suffering serious damage when deprived of oxygen either during a stroke or birth.

“The naked mole rat has adapted to thrive under these conditions,” Reznick said. “We can use that to work out what tricks evolution has come up with to deal with these situations.”

Join the workshop

The organizers hope that the workshop will help inspire others to branch out to a non-model organism, including groups researching a specific disease that has not been able to successfully translate their findings to humans.

Text: Laura Petersen


Further information

Speakers and program