A Menagerie Grows In The Lab : Shots - Health News Mice and rats can only tell scientists so much about human health. Sea squirts, parasitic wasps and an endangered Mexican salamander are all the research rage these days.
NPR logo A Menagerie Grows In The Lab

A Menagerie Grows In The Lab

Endangered in the wild, axolotls are thriving in labs. batra3x/Flickr hide caption

toggle caption
batra3x/Flickr

Endangered in the wild, axolotls are thriving in labs.

batra3x/Flickr

Everyone thinks of the guinea pig as the quintessential species for testing new medical therapies. Of course, that's not really what scientists use very often.

Mice and rats are far more common.

Both these animals are what scientists call "model organisms." They offer an opportunity for studying aspects of human biology and disease that can't be studied directly in people.

But mice and rats only go so far. Scientists are always on the lookout for new critters to bring to the lab. Here are some that you might not have realized are already workhorses of science.

Nasonia, a parasitic wasp, which for complicated reasons is great for studying a male's genetic contributions to his offspring. The tiny wasps lay their eggs on flies and are, researchers swear, "very easy to work with."

Ambystoma mexicanum, AKA the axolotl is being used to study limb regeneration. The animals, salamanders native to lakes near Mexico City, are endangered in the wild due to loss of habitat.

And then there's the sea squirt: Ciona intestinalis. What's a sea squirt got to tell us about human diseases. "It contains a number of the genes required for the synthesis of thyroid hormones," Michael Levine, a researcher at University of California, Berkeley, told NPR.

Scientists are curious enough about these creatures and what they can tell us about the development of vertebrates that they've even sequenced its genome.