The VERY SCIENTIFIC Model Organism Alignment Chart

model alginment(Images from wikipedia.org)

by David Green (@GradDavid_Green)

Science is a collaborative effort. Graduate students, professors, technicians and more all have to come together with a single purpose in the lab. We would be remiss to forget the silent hero of every biology lab, the organisms we study. However, not all organisms are created equal. Through very mild debate with my colleagues at Scientific sidequest I have answered the most important question of our time. What is the DnD alignment of different model organisms. I have shared my rationale below, think I’m crazy? Wondering where fruit flies are? Come find me on @SciSidequests and fight me!

Lawful Good: Dog – Lawful good is exemplified by its compassion, honor, and sense of duty. We would be remiss not to give the nod to man’s best friend on this one. Not a common model organism by any means, but important for the work they are involved in. Some examples being the study of diversification between different breeds and the use as medical models for muscular dystrophy. Dogs continue to loyally help humans out on the science side of things as much as they do at home.

Lawful Neutral: Rabbit – Lawful neutral show a strong dedication and loyalty. No matter what you study in science, it is quite likely that rabbits have been helping you out in the background. One of the greatest sources of polyclonal antibodies. Without their help, research across all the models would be seriously impacted.

Lawful Evil: E. coli – Lawful evil are bad natured but always following the rules. Incredibly powerful and with the right strains incredibly deadly. Escherichia coli  represents the best and worst of the model organisms. Incredibly simple to use and grow and an important player in almost any lab due to its ability to shuttle plasmids which allow the storage of DNA. You could probably chug a liter of the attenuated strains and come out fine (though I do not recommend it, the smell is. unique). However, as many salad lovers have learned in America lately, the right wild strains will kill you dead. Willing to help for the right price (lots and lots of food), but always with a dark side. E. coli earns its place as our lawful evil model organism.

Neutral Good: ArabidopsisAlways willing to help, but not beholden to anyone;0ur plant representative shows up here. Arabidopsis generally does not get grouchy or upset and it’s unlikely to try to kill you. The Arabidopsis is willing to help you out in your science if you can keep them alive. Fantastic for studying both development and a slew of plant related questions, these small members of the mustard family are a great member of the scientific model family.

True Neutral: Zebrafish – True neutral does not feel strongly about anything. No one ever expects the zebrafish. Tiny small freshwater vertebrate, they have a plethora of genetic tools at their disposal but their unique genetics (they had a complete duplication of their genome unique to their branch of fish) makes engineering mutants much more difficult, though some would say interesting. The little buggers also will refuse to have sex for weeks whenever the most important deadlines are coming up and there is literally nothing you can do about it. Zebrafish don’t care about you, but they also don’t hate you. A true neutral.

Neutral: Evil Viruses – Typically, selfish and willing to turn on their allies, viruses are constantly changing, not just their behavior but their sometimes massive chunks of their genetic code. Not even living viruses survive through hijacking the cellular machinery of the cells they infect.

Chaotic Good: Yeast –  Our good friend yeast, though wild yeasts come in many varieties, the always faithful bakers yeast will always be present in our research labs. Powerful genetics, some unique tools, yeast is always willing to help, but mostly just likes chilling eating whatever it is they put in that broth.

Chaotic Neutral: Non-model organisms –  The Wild West of scientific models. For those brave researchers that are out there working on weird and wild things they find out in the world there is the non-model organisms. From pigeons to puffer fish they represent a wild and free world, not bound by the normal constraints of science or even a sequenced genome; the sky’s the limit with these freaky friends.

Chaotic Evil: Mice – Hate you and everything about your research. These cute little furry guys like to live their lives in a way to make research on them as difficult as possible. They require constant pampering and stimulation to stay happy in their cages, being mammals, they raise their young in utero making studying development incredibly hard. Plus they are nocturnal, so behavioral assays got you dragging your butt to work at 2am on a Sunday. Thanks mice. However, the siren call of the mammalian model will always draw more researchers into the dark halls of a mouse facility, got to chase that “in mammals” sentence in your next Nature title, eh?

 

No, CRISPR will not Lead to a World of Genetically Manipulated Criminals

by David Green (@GradDavid_Green)

Lately, an article posted in the Daily Mail has been making its way through the social media spheres. Titled “Criminals could manipulate their own DNA to avoid detection on police databases with £150 online gene repair kits” (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5696383/Criminals-manipulate-DNA-avoid-detection-police-databases.html), the article has been met with a mix of concern from the public and well-deserved derision from the scientific community. While I think it is important that ethical concerns of new scientific discoveries are discussed among everyone, not only scientists, this is increasingly difficult with the existence of these kinds of articles written to incite emotion instead of to inform. So why is it so ridiculous that CRISPRs could be used to create a class of forensic invisible criminals?

To answer this question, we must first discuss what is a CRISPR? CRISPRs are an element of a bacterial antiviral defense system that can target and cut DNA at specific sites. When used to target pieces of DNA in other organisms, the cell will attempt to repair the break in their DNA, this repair mechanism runs the risk of causing an error by inducing a mutation at the site where the CRISPR cut the DNA.  Realizing that this would be incredibly useful for both research and medicinal purposes, scientists have taken this natural system from bacteria and isolated it so that we can use it across many different organisms, including humans! This discovery has been significantly impactful and there is no doubt that a Nobel Prize is forthcoming for its discovery. While CRISPRs can manipulate DNA, there are major hurdles that would make such a task very difficult.

It is true that CRISPRS can edit the DNA of an individual cell, however what the article obfuscates is that there are serious challenges that would make using such a technique to cover up crime near impossible. For one, the number of cells that an individual would have to alter to successfully dodge forensic scientists is massive. Our body is composed of trillions of cells, even focusing on the most likely cells to leave behind on a crime scene; skin, blood ect the task would be daunting. The most likely solution would be to target the stem cell populations, groups of cells whose role is to divide and replace cells as they die. Our would-be super criminal would have to alter the DNA in stem cell populations across their entire body. Now, if you can get CRISPR system into a cell it can perform the task. However, it is incredibly difficult to get large molecules such as the machinery to run the CRISPR system into a cell. It is in fact one of the major challenges to the use of the system. The second major problem requires an understanding of how forensic scientists identify individuals. Forensic scientists do not check a single site of the genome and check for similarities, they look at hundreds. To effectively cloak an individual, it would require a stunning number of mutations, to a level that would significantly risk generating  diseases (and even more unlikely Spider-Man). It is more likely that an enterprising thief would unintentionally give themselves cancer before successfully cloaking their DNA

Articles like the one in the Daily Mail are frustrating not only because they sensationalize scientific discoveries, but also because they waste valuable opportunities to engage with real issues that arise with these technologies. There are real ethical considerations for CRISPR technology, they unlock the potential to significantly tailor an individual’s DNA, if not in an adults, then in embryos. These are real ethical concerns that need to be discussed and boundaries need to be set before they are tested. These boundaries must not only be formed by the scientific community, but also with input from all members of the population. It makes it our responsibility as part of this system to make sure that we set the record straight and not only call out sensational articles like this one, but also to engage and explain these technologies and their uses as well.