Model Organisms and Model Systems

RMBL’s Model Systems

Advances in biology have been facilitated by intensive study of a few model organisms that are familiar to any student of biology. These model organisms, which include as the vinegar fly Drosophila melanogaster, the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, the mustard Arabidopsis thaliana, the zebrafish Danio rerio, as well as various microbes, represent a tiny fraction of the diversity of life. Nonetheless, they have yielded broad insights about how organisms are put together and how they function.

Because populations, communities, and ecosystems are not related by common descent as organisms are, it may seem that model ecosystems have less potential to provide broad insights than model organisms into how biological systems are put together and how they function. But while there may be no “representative” ecosystems, all of them are shaped by common geological, climatological, ecological, and evolutionary processes, and ecosystems that are shaped by similar environments show convergent properties. Thus, RMBL’s ecosystems can serve as “models” that inform our understanding of ecosystems elsewhere.

RMBL scientists have produced a wealth of natural history information about several core components of RMBL’s ecosystems. They have adopted two approaches to understanding how these systems are put together and how they function. In one approach, a single focal species is used to leverage understanding either of ecological interactions among species in the larger community or interactions of species with the abiotic environment. In another approach, the properties of groups of species inhabiting a specific landscape component – such as stream insects, or meadow plants – are the focus of study. Both approaches have proved fruitful.


Aigner, P. A. and C. E. Koehler. 2010. The Model Ecosystem as a Paradigm of Place-Based Research: The Intersection of Geology, Ecology, and Economics at the McLaughlin Reserve. In The Ecology of Place: Contributions of Place-Based Research to Ecological Understanding. Eds. Billick, I. and M. V. Price. University of Chicago Press, pp. 359-381.