Mice, rats, rabbits, dogs, pigs, monkeys – and of course guinea pigs. These are the animals you typically think of when you think of medical miracles. Did you know, though, that so many other animals have given us some pretty amazing medical breakthroughs? Here’s just a few of them. In research circles, they’re often called “non-traditional” species, though some of them are becoming much more common. Some of them are downright weird. In a really awesome way.
- Naked Mole Rats – These funny looking little creatures were named “Vertebrate of the Year” by Science Magazine! Not only can naked mole rats live to be 30 years old (other rodents only live a few years!), they’re virtually cancer free. They have helped researchers unlock many secrets of aging and cancer. No wonder they were selected vertebrate of the year!
- Vampire Bats – Could vampire bats be stroke victims’ best friends? Maybe so. Blood-feeding animals have long intrigued researchers; in fact, specific molecules in bat saliva have been known for over 40 years. Proteins in bat saliva that allow the bat to eat blood are currently being investigated for their therapeutic use is breaking up blood clots responsible for strokes.
- 13-Lined Ground Squirrels – Hibernating animals, like ground squirrels, are an outstanding model of human obesity and insulin resistance type disorders. Who knew? Well, researchers do! We all know how hibernating animals eat and pack on the fat before settling down to sleep away the winter. Then, their bodies’ physiology changes during hibernation to use that fat as fuel. These mechanisms are helping researchers figure out how insulin resistance and sensitivity work – which may lead to treatments for obesity related disorders like diabetes. Check this article out for more information on what important things we’re learning from these fascinating creatures.
- Horseshoe Crabs – Blood from these prehistoric looking animals is used for the Limulus Amebocyte Lysate (LAL) test to screen pharmaceuticals and medical devices for the presence of endotoxins, bacterial substances that can cause fevers and even be fatal to humans and animals. Use of horseshoe crab blood replaced the need for rabbits in this testing. Further, use of the horseshoe crab for biomedical purposes afforded the species protected and status and has led to the re-invigoration of the species!
- Chickens – OK, so chickens aren’t weird, really, but do you think of them in terms of medical breakthroughs? You should! The NIH considers them the premier non-mammalian research model organism. Chickens are an important model of nutrition, muscle function, vision, aging, and more. Chickens have also been shown to regenerate the tiny hairs in the inner ear, meaning researchers may be on to a mechanism for reversing hearing loss!
- Frogs – Regeneration of tissues? Check. Embryonic development? Check. Mechanisms of blood development? Check. And the list goes on. Xenopus laevis, more commonly known as the African Clawed Frog, is a powerhouse animal model. As amphibians, their physiology is pretty different from us mammals. But that’s what makes them so important. We can study how they are able to regenerate limbs and completely transform themselves from tadpoles to frogs. And so much more.
- Zebrafish – Some consider zebrafish to be the new mice for their increasing role in breakthrough biomedical discoveries. You might not think of fish when considering the problem of Alzheimer’s Disease, but they are an important model of central nervous system disorders. Anxiety? Yes! Zebrafish are helping researchers unlock the secrets that may lead to anxiety therapies without the bad side effects. The Zebrafish genome has been decoded, which is now being studied to help find answers to human disease.
8. Worms – Yes. Worms. The nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans, to be specific. C. elegans is helping researchers unlock the secrets of Parkinson’s Disease, polycystic kidney disease, and even obesity. Though they’re worms, their genetic makeup is remarkably similar to ours, which makes them very valuable in the search for the genetic basis for various diseases. In fact, C. elegans was the first animal to have it’s genome fully sequenced!
- Cuttlefish – What do you think of when you think of cephalopods like cuttlefish and squid? Ink. The dark inky substance is used as a defense mechanism. It’s an important life saver for the animal. Turns out, it could be an important life saver for humans and other animals, too. This ink has antimicrobial and anticancer properties. Cephalopod ink may also be beneficial for other conditions such as ulcers, inflammation, hypertension, retroviral infection, and more.
- Fruit Flies – Yes, those peskly little buggers that fill up your kitchen when you forget the banana peel in the trash. While they may be a pest in your home, they’re heroes in the laboratory. They’ve been an important model of reproductive biology and genetics for over 100 years. From circadian rhythms to inflammation to cardiovascular disease to cancer and more, these flies play a powerful role in unlocking genetic secrets of so many conditions. They’re such a great animal model, NASA has developed a whole space-based Fruit Fly Lab!
So, the next time you ponder the miracles that allow us to live long, healthy lives, think about these animals – they are helping to make that long, healthily life possible!