Problems with models?

Image: José Goulão/Wikimedia Commons.

Image: José Goulão/Wikimedia Commons.

Faced with the breathtaking diversity of living things, compromises are made and research effort concentrated in a few selected species – so-called ‘model organisms’ – in the hope that biological discoveries made in those will be more widely applicable to others of their kind. Accordingly, we have model animals, such as fruit fly and zebra fish, and model plants, such as thale cress and rice. We also have model systems, which enable us to focus attention on particular processes or biochemical pathways rather than the whole organism. A good example from the plant world is the tobacco cell line known as BY-2. This was established from a callus induced on a seedling of the Nicotiana tabacum cultivar BY-2, and is used as model systems for higher plants because of its ‘exceptionally high homogeneity’. If you’ve devoted much of your careers to work with that system you’ll probably already know that Ales Kovarik et al. have recently published a paper entitled, ‘A plant culture (BY-2) widely used in molecular and cell studies is genetically unstable and highly heterogeneous’. Apparently, and in keeping with other long-term cultures, BY-2 exists ‘as a community of cells with different karyotypes reflected in different chromosome numbers, morphologies and distributions of satellite repeats’. Unwelcome news, indeed! Fortunately, though, no such issues with Arabidopsis. Eh, what’s that you say, Skippy? There are!!?? Oh dear. Some time ago, Alison Anastasio et al. announced widespread mis-identification amongst Arabidopsis accessions. Of the 5965 accessions they examined, they concluded that 286 deserved ‘special attention’ as being potentially mis-identified. The brave amongst you can read the rest of the paper, but it is a scary bit of a ‘news’ for those of us who may blindly accept as truisms all ‘thale cress treatises’. Well, all may not be lost (so to speak) for BY-2 and arabidopsis users alike. Jeroen Nieuwland et al. have announced ‘Phytotracker’, a laboratory management information ‘system specifically to organise and track plasmids, seeds and growing plants that can be used in mixed platform environments’. Although it has been developed in an arabidopsis molecular genetics environment, the authors say it can be readily adapted for ‘almost any plant laboratory research’ – even BY, too, I suspect.

About Nigel Chaffey

Nigel is a botanist and full-time academic at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany he contributes the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ. His main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an amusing, educational, and entertaining way...) about plants and plant-people interactions.