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Do Lab Rats Still Have A Use?
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Do Lab Rats Still Have A Use?

Will Knowledge of the Human Genome Eliminate the Need For Animal Experiments?

Student Exploration

Do Lab Rats Still Have A Use?

Now that the Human Genome project (http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/home.shtml) has been completed, people are questioning whether we still need "model species" to study human health. A "model species" is a species that scientists use for experiments either because they have faster generation times than humans or they are cheaper to use than humans or the specific experiment is considered unethical to conduct on humans because of possible effects on test subjects. Given the advances made through the Human Genome Project (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/human-genome-project-tenth-anniversary/) people are wondering if it is now possible to learn about genes and gene actions and how these affect human health through full genetic sequencing and human cells rather than experimenting on animals.

This may seem like an easy question to answer (I don't know any scientists who like experimenting on animals). But these model species have provided us with lots of information and saved many human lives. Much of what we know about cancer came from early studies of yeast, studies with fruit flies (Drosophila) have provided vital information about human developmental pathways, and studies with zebrafish, frogs, rats, and mice have provided crucial basic information about cell functioning and animal development. We owe these model species a tremendous debt for all this information, but is it time to retire them?

While people are enthused and optimistic about the potential benefits of gene mapping for human health, scientists have pointed out that knowing the location and frequency of a gene is not the same as knowing what the gene does or how it interacts with other genes. This can be likened to knowing where a town is on a map but knowing nothing about the people who live there or their relations with other towns. Because of the complex interactions that happen within organisms, many scientists are reluctant to abandon model species. They feel given the complexities of the questions they are facing it is too soon to abandon model species for Petri dishes.

Extension Investigation

If you need help scratching a mental itch, use the resources below:

  1. Why is a fast generation time a valuable characteristic in a model species?
  2. Why is size of a model species important?
  3. Given the sequencing of the human genome
    1. Do you feel model species are still necessary? Be specific for the reasons behind your opinion.
    2. Do you feel some animals should be used as model species but not others? Be specific for the reasons behind your opinion.
  4. Why did Gregor Mendel use pea plants instead of mice for his experiments?

Resources Cited

Model Species

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