The rise of the fruit flies – Can good science communication make or break a model system?

The answer is: probably not. It is probably more important that the organism thrives in a lab environment, reproduces and hybridizes with speed and ease, and has some additional “desirable” features: think visible mutations in the fruit fly Drosophila, constant cell numbers in the nematode C. elegans, haploid/diploid cell cycles in yeast, and a small genome. So if you are working on Irises or salamanders, you are likely out of luck – your pet organism will not become the next top model organism.

However, by my own estimation, many many many interesting organisms fit the above list, but have never reached model organism status. One explanation for this: pure luck. Somebody started working on an organism group, and subsequent workers continued working on the same organisms because they already knew something about it.

I argue that there may be another aspect: good science communication. This thought entered my mind after reading Coyne & Orr’s 1989 paper on patterns of speciation in Drosophila. C&O conduct a comparative study, relating time since divergence between species of Drosophila with levels of their reproductive isolation (e.g. successful interspecific matings). They combined existing molecular phylogenetic data with existing data on reproductive isolation between species. No new data – but molecular phylogenetics had only just made its entrance, and those data, even though not collected by C&O themselves, must have been pretty novel.

While Drosophila by then was unarguably already a model organism (C&O list 119 species pairs tested for signs of reproductive isolation during mating trials), they provide a new direction to the field. How did they achieve this? My three cents:

A) They combined a new method, molecular phylogenetics, with an established method, lab mating trials, thus getting both “old school” and “new school” scientists involved.

B) They tested theoretically sound hypotheses. This never hurts, and hypotheses relating to one of the big evolutionary challenges, speciation, is likely to draw attention.

C) They communicated hypotheses, methods and results clearly, making the paper accessible to a broad community. Moreover, they communicate in a manner that gets you excited about their research. I most certainly wanted to follow in their footsteps after reading their paper (and mind you, I am a dedicated marine biologists). This idea is by no means new, and the scientific community has become more aware and appreciative of good writing.

So then, to remedy my initial answer: model organisms need to have certain features, but the scientists working on them can do a lot to make the system more approachable, open it up for new questions, and transcend ideas across generations. Given that we are at the dawn of the age of genomics, Coyne & Orrs approach appears worth repeating, even when funding for new data is hard to get by.

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