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Call of the wild: (Un)ordinary Organisms

By coaxing out the secrets underlying (un)ordinary biological feats of research organisms—like whole-body regeneration in the case of planarian flatworms—Stowers scientists are investigating how life works at its most fundamental level to ultimately understand human health and find treatments for diseases.

26 October 2023

By Rachel Scanza, Ph.D.

Taking a walk or a hike, a boat ride or a swim, scaling a mountain or diving deep into the sea—every day, every moment can offer an opportunity to witness nature and the incredible diversity of lifeforms inhabiting it. It takes an open mind, a willingness to be surprised, and a healthy dose of curiosity.

Researchers at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research study many different organisms—animals, microbes, and even plants. Each research organism is chosen for a reason. For some, the reason is simple: We have the opportunity to study fundamental biology in an animal far less complicated than a human. For others, the reason may be that the animal or organism exhibits an exaggerated feature or biological capability that can teach us how or why humans either share or lack this feature. For example, why can planarian flatworms regenerate an entire body? And how do zebrafish regenerate hair cells?

By coaxing out the secrets underlying their (un)ordinary biological feats—like whole-body regeneration in the case of planarian flatworms—we are investigating how life works at its most fundamental level to ultimately understand human health and find treatments for diseases.

Sea anemone

For biologists, the 1800’s and early 1900’s was a time of exploration, observation, and attempting to characterize and classify the unknown. As technologies were developed, vast varieties of organisms were whittled down to a small handful that were then studied extensively.

Depending on the particular biological question posed, it makes sense to choose the simplest organism that can reveal an answer. For example, if one is studying how basic processes like cell division occur, single-celled yeast is a logical choice. If the question centers around a biological system like the brain and nervous system, the fruit fly is an excellent option. The mouse may be the best choice if seeking a mammal that can serve as a model system for a human disease.

There were abundant theories behind curious creature capabilities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; however, scientists lacked the technologies and techniques to generate the amount of data required to validate their hypotheses. Then, a careful and precise investigation of a relatively small collection of species yielded large quantities of data. This, along with technological breakthroughs—like computers and DNA sequencers—enabled scientists to develop and refine technologies, collecting even more data along the way.

Microorganism for gif


Now, technology has caught up. Although the exploration that distinguished late 19th century biology never ceased, scientists are armed with tools like high resolution imaging and multi-omics sequencing for accelerated exploration at unprecedented rates. Along with “ordinary” or highly studied and well-characterized traditional research organisms, scientists now have the ability, and the tools, to investigate and understand the feats of less studied “unordinary” organisms.

The Institute encourages its scientists to take risks by asking big questions. This includes an unordinary, or rather extraordinary, level of support to develop facilities to house, care for, and study more unusual organisms for research along with well-established organisms. For example, the Institute is home to fruit flies and sea anemones, and coastal reef building corals are now thriving and reproducing right here in the Midwest.

There are many organisms residing at the Institute, collected from all over the world, and cared for by an army of dedicated scientists, technicians, and a veterinarian. From apple snails with human-like eyes that regenerate to sea anemones that serve as 600-million-year-old time machines elucidating what the very first animals inhabiting Earth looked like to single-celled yeast unveiling how Huntington’s disease starts—whether ordinary or unordinary, each can reveal something important in our quest to unravel life’s secrets.

Learn more about the organisms of the Stowers Institute here. 

Zebrafish for gif


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