Science Behind the Scenes: Model Organisms—The Unsung Heroes of Biomedical Research

Author: Noah Steinfeld

Editors: Alex Taylor, Christina Vallianatos, and Bryan Moyers

In 2001 the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to three scientists, Leland Hartwell, Tim Hunt and Paul Nurse, for their discoveries of key regulators of the cell cycle. Normally, before a cell can divide, it must undergo several phases of the cell cycle in a precise order. First, a cell grows in size, then duplicates its DNA, and finally distributes its DNA evenly between two daughter cells. The three researchers played seminal roles in identifying the mechanisms by which cells transition from one cell cycle phase to the next.

These fundamental discoveries are not only crucial to our understanding of biology, but have applications in human disease. Many types of cancer are linked to mutations that cause cells to move quickly through or even skip some parts of the cell cycle, making cell cycle regulation a hot area of biological research. Given the implications this research has for human health, it might surprise you that many cell cycle regulators were not first discovered in humans. Instead, these cell cycle regulators were identified and characterized in model organisms including yeast and sea urchins.

“But what do I have in common with the yeast I use to bake bread?” you might ask. As it turns out, a lot more than you’d think.

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Science behind the scenes: The costs and payoffs of science

By: Bryan Moyers

Edited by:  David Mertz, Shweta Ramdas, Scott Barolo, Kevin Boehnke

Why haven’t we cured cancer?  Physicians have known about cancer for over 5000 years, and the United States spends nearly $5 billion per year on cancer research.  But there’s still no cure.  Also, where is our clean, renewable energy?  We can’t even catch half the energy in sunlight, and solar panels don’t come cheap!  Why don’t we have a moon colony yet or a male birth control pill?

In the U.S., science funding comes from many sources, including the taxpayers.  As an example, half a percent of the federal budget goes to fund NASA, before considering all of the money that goes to the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the National Institutes of Health and other federal science organizations.  It is reasonable that publicly-funded science should provide some benefit for the public, but it seems like there’s a lot of scientific research out there that’s not giving us the technologies and discoveries we want and need.   So why do we throw money at projects that don’t seem to deliver?

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How fireflies illuminated our understanding of the world

By Noah Steinfeld

In the early 1950s at Johns Hopkins University, William E. McElroy, a young professor, wanted to figure out what makes fireflies glow. He would pay a quarter to children in the Baltimore area for every 100 fireflies they brought him. McElroy was regarded as a curiosity in the community: the stereotype of an eccentric scientist. But what these people didn’t know was that as a result of this research, McElroy would one day create a tool that would revolutionize the way scientists do biological research.

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