Model Organisms Don’t Smize

I’ve watched enough of America’s Next Top Model to know that “smizing,” or smiling with your eyes, is a crucial skill that all models must possess. Personally, I don’t really see the difference between smizing and “opening your eyes up real wide while doing funky eyebrow movements,” but that’s probably at least part of why the closest I get to models is model organisms.

Model organisms are plants, animals, fungi, pretty much any living thing that isn’t human, that is used extensively to study biological processes, with the idea that these model organisms can provide insights into how other organisms work. There are a lot of different model organisms (ex: E. coli, rats, a type of mustard called Arabadopsis, flour beetles) ““ and none of them are going to be on top, since each is specifically chosen for its unique attributes.

But generally speaking, model organisms are chosen because they are easy to use: they’re either easy to grow, or their DNA is easy to sequence, or they have short life-spans, or they aren’t human so it is easier/more ethical to infect them with diseases (though not too long ago, scientists were directly testing on humans, see the Tuskegee syphilis study where scientists knowingly withheld treatments from the poor, black men who were enrolled in the study). Past that, the question you’re asking is going to determine which model organism is used; for example, if you wanted to study the effects of human diseases, you would work with lab rats, not mustard plants.

Some model organisms are such easy and well-studied organisms, that they really take off. Remember those fruit fly experiments in high school biology? Fruit flies, or Drosophila, are one of the most famous model organisms ““ they are the Tyra Banks of the model organism world, if you will. Because of their size (so portable!) and life spans (so many generations in so little time!), they are a relatively simple system in which to study big questions in fields as varied as genetics, medicine, and straight up ecology.

And while all this sounds all well and good, model organisms do have an Achilles’ heel. No, it’s not that their neck disappears in photographs (heck, some of them don’t even have necks); it’s that model organisms are often used as a proxy for another organism, and that other organism may be just different enough that the findings from the model organism do not translate well. Choosing the right model and being upfront about the limitations of model organisms goes really far in attenuating this problem, though, but I don’t suggest an ANTM-like competition as the way to go about choosing a model organism. For starters, it’s awfully hard to smize without eyes.

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