The foundation of the Arcadia science program is to catalyze the shift from “model organisms” to “organisms as technology.”
One of the most frequent questions we get asked when talking about Arcadia is: “So if you aren’t studying model organisms, which organisms will you be studying?”
The expectation is that we will give a list of species, like Chlamydomonas reinhardtii (a favorite of Prachee’s) or ticks (a focus of Seemay’s previous research). But this question and its expected answer misses a key point of what we are trying to achieve with our science program at Arcadia.
Our work is not to develop and anoint the next major model organisms. Our work is to better leverage an alternative to the model organism framework. Let us explain.
The first thing to acknowledge is that the model organisms (mice, yeast, roundworms, A. thaliana, fruit flies, etc) are incredibly powerful. The biological insights and technologies that have — and continue to be — derived from studying them as useful proxies of shared biological principles are absolutely essential to our current understanding of biology. Their tractability allows us to ask and answer a wide range of important questions about these shared biological principles.
But outliers are important too. The standard approach (in general) focuses heavily on evolutionary conservation, particularly that with humans, and overlooks biological exceptions. This perspective is not designed to take advantage of the awesome power of evolution, which has created an enormous catalog of biological innovation. By restricting research to our most common use of current model organisms — as models of human biology — we limit our ability to fully understand and tap into the vast richness and ingenuity of biology.
This anthropocentric view implicitly assumes that if it isn’t like a human, then it is less useful to humans. But this of course isn’t true. Case in point: CRISPR. This incredibly versatile gene editing system — a biological technology — is now the foundation of a wide-range of novel therapeutics and companies. But CRISPR wasn’t found by studying lab-adapted E. coli strains on an agar plate, it was discovered by exploring the metagenomes of diverse bacterial species from environmental samples. The same is true for many other well-known enabling biological technologies, such as GFP (green fluorescent protein, found in jellyfish) and PCR (polymerase chain reaction, which uses an enzyme from an extremophile bacteria).
Thus, the foundation of the Arcadia science program is to catalyze the shift from “model organisms” to “organisms as technology.”
If we want to truly understand the technology that is biology, its design principles, and how best to leverage it, we need to look across the tree of life in a deep, intentional, and open-minded way.
If we want to truly understand the technology that is biology, its design principles, and how best to leverage it, we need to look across the tree of life in a deep, intentional, and open-minded way. We need to use the powerful tools developed in the model organisms, as well as create new tools for this purpose.
Now, of course, we are not the first people to think up this approach to science or to argue for the benefits of comparative biology. We are standing on the shoulders of giants, and the viewpoint expressed here reflects hundreds of conversations with scientists and other builders.
What is unique to Arcadia is the concerted effort, focus, and resources dedicated to the express purpose of harnessing organisms as technology. Critically, we are equally committed to both the discovery of these technologies and their translation into real-life tools. The ability to couple discovery and translation activities under the same roof supercharges these efforts, demonstrating that basic biology can form the basis of a viable business model. Lastly, these efforts are not just for the benefit of the scientists working at Arcadia, but for all researchers and for society.
We are at an incredible moment in scientific history when an array of distinct but complementary technologies for accessing and exploring diverse species are rapidly maturing, including genome sequencing, gene editing, microscopy, mass spectrometry, phylogenomics, machine learning, and many, many more. At Arcadia, our central aim is to develop research technologies that allow scientists to move nimbly between organisms to make the most of unique features to answer their question of interest, rather than providing a few more options on the model organism menu. And, of course, we will still be working with some of the classical model organisms at Arcadia. Our intention is not to cast aside or disparage these powerful systems, but instead to use them to their strengths to reveal new biological insights.
We believe that by combining our human-derived technologies with evolutionary-derived technologies, we can empower a new way to explore and utilize the wonders of biology.