Signals from animals

by Bella Williams, January 2016.

“For centuries scientists have observed nature, but some key questions can only be answered by studying living animals.”

The use of animals in scientific study is a controversial yet essential component of biomedical research, several aspects of which are played out in the Silent Signal project. The study of disease transmission on the macroscopic level through the field research explored in AfterGlow, microscopic details of cellular scaffolding and the role of cellular components in Loop, and the high-concept ideas of Sleepless and The Signal and the Noise are all firmly based in the study of animals and observations how biological systems interact.

For centuries scientists have observed nature and carried out their research investigating plants, yeast and animal tissue, but some key questions can only be answered by studying living animals. The body is a hugely complex organism, and its interactions bring about behaviours that are much more than the sum of their parts. Using animals in research supports medical advances for humans and animals, both by testing new medical treatments and by providing fundamental knowledge such as how cells grow and divide, infection spreads or sleep cycles become damaged.

For many years the animals most associated with research were the laboratory rat and the guinea pig, but in the 21st century different animals have provided the key insights in science. The mouse and the zebrafish are now the most important and widely used animals in science comprising around 80% all animals used in research. Both are small animals that breed quickly, so it has become possible to study the effects of environmental or physical changes on successive generations, in a way that would be impossible in humans. It is also possible to purposefully alter the genetic sequences of these animals to produce specific characteristics.

All animals deserve to be cared for and treated well by people who understand their needs and behaviours. The use of animals UK in science is highly regulated at both a government and at an institutional level. All those who work with animals in a laboratory setting are trained to consider their needs and expected to work with care and compassion, taking veterinary advice to reduce any suffering caused to animals in their care.

It is difficult to imagine how something as complex and esoteric as sleep could be studied in a test tube. Computer modelling and the recent ability to aggregate and make sense of vast amounts of data are helpful, while medical imaging technologies such as MRI provide insights into what happens inside the body. But there are limitations, and at times animal studies that look at connections between brain function and behaviour are needed to bridge gaps in knowledge.

Zebrafish have been crucial to understanding fundamental components of how cells function inside the body and how they communicate with one another. Cells are so complex and so sensitive that they can behave very differently in a chemical solution designed to mimic the environment of the body to how they behave in a living animal. Just as a fish tank is a very different environment to the ocean, so a petri dish will never accurately mimic the body. These tiny transparent fish that can be observed and studied while living, breathing and growing have provided a new way of understanding of how the body works.

Bella Williams is a science writer and communications consultant who works with researchers, policy makers and public to create effective engagement on controversial or up-stream issues in science. Her recent work has focused on creating a greater culture of transparency around the use of animals in scientific research. She is Head of Engagement at Understanding Animal Research, where she leads work on Concordat on Openness on Animal Research in the UK.