In Perspective

By David Chao, PhD, President and CEO

Basic biomedical researchers seek answers to fundamental questions about how living organisms develop and function. In addition to increasing our fundamental understanding, some of these discoveries become starting points for developing new medical applications, often in unexpected ways.

On a typical day at the Stowers Institute, one might find a half-dozen researchers sitting at a row of microscopes, inspecting immobilized fruit flies and sorting the female from the male, the red-eyed from the white-eyed, or the winged from the wingless. Known informally as "fly pushing," this activity is a key part of the genetic screens essential for fruit fly research.

The core essentials of fly pushing – fruit flies, microscopes, small brushes and researchers – are the same as they were one hundred years ago in Nobel Laureate Thomas Hunt Morgan's famous fly room at Columbia University. Morgan was instrumental in popularizing the fruit fly as a model system to understand how inherited factors are passed down through generations. As demonstrated at the Institute by the Gibson, Hawley, Si, Xie, Workman, and Zeitlinger laboratories, the fruit fly continues to have a prominent place in modern biological research.

Many researchers choose to study processes in the fruit fly because its devotees can draw upon a century's worth of data, insights, and research tools. The fruit fly is one of a handful of species that are well-recognized and well-studied standards called "model organisms". For centuries, biologists studied thousands of different species, without any one species achieving critical mass and establishing itself as a standard. The fruit fly was one of the first species to achieve critical mass, followed by other species including the gut bacteria, Escherichia coli; a bacterial virus called phage; baker's yeast; the roundworm; zebrafish; and mice.

Each of these model organisms is particularly well suited to address questions in a specific area of biology. However, the availability of only a handful of organisms leaves many gaps unaddressed. Fortunately, recent technological advances have reduced the time and effort needed to sequence, compare, annotate, and manipulate new genomes, and help fill the gaps.

This issue's cover story describes several emerging model systems used in the Institute's research programs. Stowers investigators are able to pursue these programs because of superlative support from the Institute's scientific support facilities. The Laboratory Animal Support Facility, Reptiles and Aquatics Facility, Computational Biology Core, Research Advisors, and Molecular Biology Core all accelerate the development of new model organisms by applying their expertise in areas like animal husbandry, genome analysis, and genome manipulation.

Part of Jim and Virginia Stowers's vision for the Institute has been to enable its members to pursue research that is difficult or impossible anywhere else. Streamlining the process by which investigators can develop and study new model organisms is but one example of how the Institute is seeking to achieve their vision. I hope you enjoy reading about emerging model organisms and other innovative projects in this issue of the Stowers Report.