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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