Scientists Look to Nature in Search of Biomedical Breakthroughs
From bees to wolves, Pew researchers are using creative model organisms to explore human health
Biomedical researchers have long studied the human body to gain insight into health and medicine. But sometimes, exploring the natural world for clues into human biology can be just as insightful. For centuries, scientific discoveries gleaned from studying plants, fish, mammals, and even insects have informed important medical innovations.
Researchers select these “model organisms” for a variety of reasons, ranging from their genetic similarity to humans and ability to easily reproduce to the ease by which they can be manipulated. And their use is foundational to biomedical science, changing the way academics and other experts understand basic biological principles and aiding in the development of lifesaving drugs.
Scientists within Pew’s biomedical programs often rely on model organisms—including some unconventional ones. From wolves to naked mole rats, four scientists are taking uniquely creative approaches to exploring human health.
Sweat bees and human social behavior
Some model organisms might seem distant from humans, but certain microscopic similarities make them more closely aligned than one might realize. Sweat bees, a family of nonaggressive bees, are one example. Not only are there parallels in the way insects and vertebrates modulate behavior, but some genes linked to behavior in sweat bees may also be associated with autism in humans. Sarah Kocher, Ph.D., a 2022 Pew scholar at Princeton University, developed sweat bees as a new model organism and uses genetic and neuroscience techniques to see what these animals can reveal about human social behavior.
Although some sweat bee species cohabitate in colonies, others choose to live solitary lives or are considered “socially flexible”—meaning they might engage in one or the other. Kocher’s lab is looking at what drives this variability in social behavior. Her team has zeroed in on the genes that bind and transport a molecule called “juvenile hormone”—a hormone that regulates development and maturation—as a possible factor in determining how a bee behaves socially.
With this knowledge, Kocher can explore how exposure to juvenile hormone—and to other bees—during key periods of a bee’s development influences its behavior and neurobiology. Her lab is also examining the differences in which genes are active in the brains of social versus solitary species. Ultimately, Kocher’s work could help identify novel ways to treat disorders in humans that affect social communication.
Wolves and resilience to cancer
Scientists can also make discoveries by looking at how animals have evolved over the course of many generations. Shane Campbell-Staton, Ph.D., a 2022 Pew scholar also at Princeton University, is examining how wolves have adapted to endure a uniquely challenging environment: the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
When an explosion occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine in 1986, the 100,000 pounds of radioactive material released rendered the surrounding environment unlivable for humans. But scientists such as Campbell-Staton have paid close attention to the way animals have survived—and evolved—in such a highly radioactive, cancer-causing setting.
He and his team theorized that the harsh environment led to natural selection and the emergence of cancer-resilient genetic variants in the region’s wolf population. By comparing Chernobyl’s wolves with those found in Belarus and Yellowstone National Park, Campbell-Staton’s lab was able to pinpoint differences in genomic regions associated with cancer. Now, he is exploring this genome to understand how the genetic changes present in Chernobyl’s wolves may protect against cancer development amid exposure to such high radiation. Campbell-Staton’s team is working with the knowledge and hope that the research could inform new anti-cancer therapeutics for humans.
Naked mole rats, axolotls, and aging
Sometimes studying the unique capabilities of model organisms can help scientists push past the limits of human biology. This is the case with two Pew Latin American fellows, Susana Castro-Obregón, Ph.D., and Ivan Velasco, Ph.D. As part of Pew’s 2022 class of Innovation Fund investigators, the pair, both affiliated with the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, is collaborating to explore aging in naked mole rats and Mexican axolotls.
These animals both possess notable anti-aging qualities not seen in humans. Naked mole rats have an extended life span of 30 years compared with the average four-year life expectancy for mice in captivity. And Mexican axolotls, a type of salamander, have unique regenerative capabilities—such as the ability to regrow part of their spine or brain.
The researchers will collaborate to examine the role that “autophagy”—the body’s method of clearing away debris and old cells—plays in how both animals weather certain effects of aging. Ultimately, the pair’s findings could help inform new ways to slow neurodegeneration associated with aging in humans and in illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Kara Coleman directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ biomedical programs.