01 April 2008

Great moments in crayfish research: The model organism

The great Victorian biologist, Thomas Henry Huxley, is famed for his defense of the concept of natural selection, for first proposing a relationship between birds and dinosaurs, and many other achievements. Less well known among general biologists was his book titled The Crayfish: An Introduction to the Study of Zoology.

In inimitable Victoria prose, he prefaced his book by saying:

I have desired, in fact, to show how the careful study of one of the commonest and most insignificant of animals, leads us, step by step, from every-day knowledge to the widest generalizations and the most difficult problems of zoology; and, indeed, of biological science in general.

It is for this reason that I have termed the book an “Introduction to Zoology.” For, whoever will follow its pages, crayfish in hand, and will try to verify for himself the statements which it contains, will find himself brought face to face with all the great zoological questions which excite so lively an interest at the present day; he will understand the method by which alone we can hope to attain to satisfactory answers of these questions; and, finally, he will appreciate the justice of Diderot's remark, “Il faut être profond dans l'art on dans la science pour en bien posséder les éléments.”

Ah, the old “throw in a quote in another language without a translation to show how smart you are” trick.

This may be one of the earliest explicit justifications for using a single organisms to study a host of biological problems. Those single organisms are known today as model organisms. The 20th century was when the concept of model organisms really rolled into force, perhaps starting with fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster). Certainly, by the mid-century scientists had taken Huxley's lengthy justification and traded them for bon mots like this one from Jacques Monod, “What is true for E. coli is also true for the elephant.”

So, arguably, crayfish contributed to the model organism concept. From time to time, I'll be highlighting basic biological discoveries that were made by studying crayfish. Which, I hope, Marmorkrebs will be adding to as more labs begin to work with this organism.

Here's a link to an HTML version of Huxley's text, and here's the Google books version.

Additional (23 February 2009): Monod's quote is preceded by a similar one by Albert Kluyver: “From the elephant to butyric acid bacterium—it is all the same!”

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