E. coli to Elephants: Extrapolating from Models
In 1954, the famous French scientist Jacques Monod’s uttered the phrase, “Anything found to be true of E. coli must also be true of elephants, only more so.” E. coli is short for Escherichia coli, a very common bacterium that lives in the human intestine. E. coli is useful for humans because it is a major component of our normal intestinal flora that promotes general health. It is especially useful to scientists, however, because it has severed as a simple model to study countless cellular phenomena that occur in all living cells, not just bacteria… including elephants.
Monod’s point was that, even though only a bacterium, E. coli is—biochemically—more similar to an elephant than it is different. Further, E.coli reproduces quickly, offers a nearly infinite array of mutations to study, and fits easily on a microscope slide. In short, it offers a convenient and powerful model for studying higher forms of life.
Models have done more to push modern science forward than nearly any other tool, perhaps rivaling mathematics itself. Models allow us to conceptualize and experiment on systems that are too large (like the Universe) or too small (like atoms) to easily study in the lab. Likewise, having models that represent human beings allows scientists to perform experiments that would never be possible otherwise. Watson and Crick worked out the structure of DNA by using models constructed of wire and paper. The monk Gregor Mendel used simple pea plants as a model for the inheritance of genetic traits that today help predict the occurrence of genetic diseases in the human population. Tidal waves are studied in troughs and meteor impacts are modeled with marbles and playground sand. Computer modeling and simulations allow scientists to study phenomena ranging from intergalactic collisions, origins of the universe and the prediction of tomorrow’s weather.
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