Untold numbers of animals have contributed to science, in ways big and small. Studying cows and cowpox helped English doctor Edward Jenner create a smallpox vaccine; Ivan Pavlov's experiments on dogs' reactions to external stimuli heavily influenced modern behavioral psychology.
We have these five animals to thank for some of our most important scientific advancements, from space travel to better organ replacement options.
Scientists still work with rats, rabbits, and other mammals to test cosmetics and pharmaceuticals and to conduct infectious disease research. Most of these animals remain nameless and unknown to the public, but over the years, certain individuals have had an outsize effect. We have these five animals to thank for some of our most important scientific advancements, from space travel to better organ replacement options.
1) LAIKA THE DOG
Laika was the first living creature ever to orbit the Earth. In October 1957, the Soviet Sputnik I ship had made history as the first man-made object sent into Earth's orbit; Premier Nikita Khrushchev was keen to gain another Space Race victory by sending up a canine cosmonaut.
Laika ("barker" in Russian), was a stray dog, reportedly a husky-spitz mix, recruited among several other female strays for the trip. Although the scientists put extensive work into preparing Laika and the other canine finalists—evaluating their reactions to air-pressure variations, training them to adapt to pelvic sanitation devices meant to contain waste, and eventually having them live in pressurized capsules for weeks—there was no expectation that the dog would return to Earth, and only one meal's worth of food was sent up with her.
Laika the dog, with a mockup of her space capsule.
Sputnik II, six times heavier than its predecessor, launched on November 3, 1957. Soviet broadcasts reported that Laika, fitted out with surgically implanted devices to monitor her heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rates, survived until November 12; the spacecraft stayed in orbit for five more months, burning up when it re-entered the atmosphere.
At the time, the Sputnik II team reassured the world that Laika had died painlessly of oxygen deprivation. It was only decades later, in the 1990s, that Oleg Gazenko—one of the scientists and dog trainers assigned to the mission—revealed that Laika had died 5 to 7 hours after launch from a combination of heat and stress. The capsule had overheated, probably as a result of the rushed preparation; after the fourth orbit, the temperature inside Sputnik was over 90 degrees, and it's doubtful she could have survived much past that. "The more time passes, the more I'm sorry about it. We shouldn't have done it," Gazenko said. "We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog."
Yet even the four or five orbits that Laika did complete were enough to spur scientists to press on in the effort to send a human into space.
2) HAM THE CHIMP
Four years after Laika's ill-fated flight, a chimpanzee named Ham entered suborbital flight in the American Project Mercury MR-2 mission on January 31, 1961, becoming the first hominid in space—and unlike Laika, he returned to Earth, alive, after a 16-minute flight.
Even though Ham's flight was not destined for orbit, the spacecraft and booster used on his trip were the same combination intended for the first (human) American's trip later that year. If he came back unharmed, NASA's medical team would be prepared to okay astronaut Alan Shepard's flight.
Ham receives his well-deserved apple.
For approximately 18 months before liftoff, Ham was trained to perform simple tasks, like pushing levers, in response to visual and auditory cues. (If he failed, he received an electric shock; correct performance earned him a treat. Pavlov would have been pleased.)
At 37 pounds, Ham was also the heaviest animal to ever make it to space. His vital signs and movements were monitored from Earth, and after a light electric shock from the ground team reminded him of his tasks, he performed his lever-pushing just a bit slower than he had on Earth, verifying that motion would not be seriously impaired in space.
Less than three months after Ham returned to Earth, on April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to complete an orbital flight; Shepard was close behind, successfully crewing the MR-3 mission on May 5. For his part, Ham "retired" to the National Zoo in Washington D.C. for 17 years, before being transferred to the North Carolina Zoological Park; he died of liver failure in 1983 at age 26. His grave is at the International Space Hall of Fame in New Mexico.
3) KOKO THE GORILLA
A western lowland gorilla born at the San Francisco Zoo, Hanabi-ko, or "Koko," became famous in the 1970s for her cognitive and communicative abilities. Psychologist Francine "Penny" Patterson, then a doctoral student at Stanford, chose Koko to work on a language research project, teaching her American Sign Language; by age four, Koko demonstrated the ability both to make up new words and to combine known words to express herself creatively, as opposed to simply mimicking her trainer.
Koko and Penny compare notes.
Koko's work with Patterson reflected levels of cognition that were higher than non-human primates had previously been thought to have; by the end of her life, her language skills were roughly equivalent to a young child's, with a vocabulary of around 1,000 signs and the ability to understand 2,000 words of spoken English.
An especially impactful study in 2012 showed that Koko had learned to play the recorder, revealing an ability for voluntary breath control that scientists had previously thought was linked closely to speech and could only be developed by humans. Barbara J. King, a biological anthropologist, suggested that Koko's immersion in a human environment may have helped her develop such a skill, and that it might be misleading to consider similar abilities "innate" or lacking in either humans or non-human primates.
Koko's displays of emotions also fascinated the public, especially those that seemed to closely mirror humans': she cared for pet kittens; appeared on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood and untied the host's shoes for him; acted playfully with Robin Williams during a visit from him, and later expressed grief when told about the comedian's death. Koko died in her sleep in June 2018, at age 46. Patterson continues to run The Gorilla Foundation, which is dedicated to using inter-species communication to motivate conservation efforts.
4) DOLLY THE SHEEP
Dolly—named after country singer Dolly Parton—was the first mammal ever to be cloned from an adult somatic cell, using the process of nuclear transfer. She was born in 1996 as part of research by scientists Keith Campbell and Ian Wilmut of the University of Edinburgh.
Dolly the cloned sheep.
By taking a donor cell from an adult sheep's mammary gland, using it to replace the cell nucleus of an unfertilized, developing egg cell, and then bringing the resultant embryo to term, Campbell and Wilmut proved that even a mature cell (one that had developed to perform mammary gland functions) could revert to an embryonic state and go on to develop into any and all parts of a mammal.
Although cloned livestock are legal in the U.S.—the FDA approved the practice in 2008, after determining that there was no difference between the meat and milk of cattle, pigs, and goats—Dolly has had an even bigger impact on stem cell research. The successful test of nuclear transfer proved that it was possible to change a cell's gene expression by changing its nucleus.
Japanese stem cell biologist Shinya Yamanaka, inspired by the birth of Dolly, won the Nobel Prize in 2012 for his adaptation of the technique. He developed induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) by chemically reverting mature cells back to an embryonic-like blank state that is highly desirable for disease research and treatment. This technique allows researchers to work with such stem cells without the ethically charged complication of having to destroy a human embryo in the process.
5) LAIKA THE PIG
Named in honor of the dog who made it to space, the second science-famous Laika was a genetically engineered pig born in China in 2015 as a result of gene editing carried out by Cambridge, MA startup eGenesis and collaborators.* eGenesis aims to create pigs whose organs—hearts, kidneys, lungs, and more—are safe to transplant into people.
Laika the gene-edited pig.
Using animal organs in humans (xenotransplantation) is tricky: the immune system is very good at recognizing interlopers, and the human body can start to reject an organ from another species in as little as five minutes. But pigs are otherwise exceptionally good potential donors for humans: their organs' sizes and functions are very similar, and their quick gestation and maturation make them attractive from an efficiency standpoint, given that twenty Americans die every day waiting for organ donors.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dolly the sheep helped move xenotransplantation forward. In the 1990s, immunologist David Sachs was able to use a similar cloning method to eliminate alpha-gal, an enzyme that is produced by most animals with immune systems, including pigs—but not humans. Since our immune systems don't recognize alpha-gal, attacks on that enzyme are a major cause of organ rejection. Sachs' experiments increased the survival time of pig organs in primates to weeks: a huge improvement, but not nearly enough for someone in need of a liver or heart.
The advent of CRISPR technology, and the ability to edit genes, has allowed another leap. In 2015, researchers at eGenesis used targeted gene-editing to eliminate the genes for porcine endogenous retroviruses from pig kidney cells. These viral elements are part of all pigs' genomes and pose a potentially high risk of infecting human cells. (After the HIV/AIDS crisis especially, there was a lot of anxiety about potentially introducing a new virus into the human population.)
The eGenesis lab used nuclear transfer to embed the edited nuclei into egg cells taken from a normal pig; and Laika was born months later—without the dangerous viral genes. eGenesis is now working to make the organs even more humanlike, with the goal of one day providing organs to every human patient in need.
*[Disclosure: In 2019, eGenesis received a series B investment from Leaps By Bayer, the funding sponsor of leapsmag. However, leapsmag is editorially independent of Bayer and is under no obligation to cover companies they invest in.]
[Correction, March 3, 2020: Laika the gene-edited pig was born in China, not Cambridge, and eGenesis is pursuing xenotransplant programs that include heart, kidney, and lung, but not skin, as originally written.]
Astronauts at the International Space Station today depend on pre-packaged, freeze-dried food, plus some fresh produce thanks to regular resupply missions. This supply chain, however, will not be available on trips further out, such as the moon or Mars. So what are astronauts on long missions going to eat?
Going by the options available now, says Christel Paille, an engineer at the European Space Agency, a lunar expedition is likely to have only dehydrated foods. “So no more fresh product, and a limited amount of already hydrated product in cans.”
For the Mars mission, the situation is a bit more complex, she says. Prepackaged food could still constitute most of their food, “but combined with [on site] production of certain food products…to get them fresh.” A Mars mission isn’t right around the corner, but scientists are currently working on solutions for how to feed those astronauts. A number of boundary-pushing efforts are now underway.
The logistics of growing plants in space, of course, are very different from Earth. There is no gravity, sunlight, or atmosphere. High levels of ionizing radiation stunt plant growth. Plus, plants take up a lot of space, something that is, ironically, at a premium up there. These and special nutritional requirements of spacefarers have given scientists some specific and challenging problems.
To study fresh food production systems, NASA runs the Vegetable Production System (Veggie) on the ISS. Deployed in 2014, Veggie has been growing salad-type plants on “plant pillows” filled with growth media, including a special clay and controlled-release fertilizer, and a passive wicking watering system. They have had some success growing leafy greens and even flowers.
"Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources."
A larger farming facility run by NASA on the ISS is the Advanced Plant Habitat to study how plants grow in space. This fully-automated, closed-loop system has an environmentally controlled growth chamber and is equipped with sensors that relay real-time information about temperature, oxygen content, and moisture levels back to the ground team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In December 2020, the ISS crew feasted on radishes grown in the APH.
“But salad doesn’t give you any calories,” says Erik Seedhouse, a researcher at the Applied Aviation Sciences Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. “It gives you some minerals, but it doesn’t give you a lot of carbohydrates.” Seedhouse also noted in his 2020 book Life Support Systems for Humans in Space: “Integrating the growing of plants into a life support system is a fiendishly difficult enterprise.” As a case point, he referred to the ESA’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative (MELiSSA) program that has been running since 1989 to integrate growing of plants in a closed life support system such as a spacecraft.
Paille, one of the scientists running MELiSSA, says that the system aims to recycle the metabolic waste produced by crew members back into the metabolic resources required by them: “The aim is…to come [up with] a closed, sustainable system which does not [need] any logistics resupply.” MELiSSA uses microorganisms to process human excretions in order to harvest carbon dioxide and nitrate to grow plants. “Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources,” Paille adds.
Microorganisms play a big role as “fuel” in food production in extreme places, including in space. Last year, researchers discovered Methylobacterium strains on the ISS, including some never-seen-before species. Kasthuri Venkateswaran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the researchers involved in the study, says, “[The] isolation of novel microbes that help to promote the plant growth under stressful conditions is very essential… Certain bacteria can decompose complex matter into a simple nutrient [that] the plants can absorb.” These microbes, which have already adapted to space conditions—such as the absence of gravity and increased radiation—boost various plant growth processes and help withstand the harsh physical environment.
MELiSSA, says Paille, has demonstrated that it is possible to grow plants in space. “This is important information because…we didn’t know whether the space environment was affecting the biological cycle of the plant…[and of] cyanobacteria.” With the scientific and engineering aspects of a closed, self-sustaining life support system becoming clearer, she says, the next stage is to find out if it works in space. They plan to run tests recycling human urine into useful components, including those that promote plant growth.
The MELiSSA pilot plant uses rats currently, and needs to be translated for human subjects for further studies. “Demonstrating the process and well-being of a rat in terms of providing water, sufficient oxygen, and recycling sufficient carbon dioxide, in a non-stressful manner, is one thing,” Paille says, “but then, having a human in the loop [means] you also need to integrate user interfaces from the operational point of view.”
Growing food in space comes with an additional caveat that underscores its high stakes. Barbara Demmig-Adams from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder explains, “There are conditions that actually will hurt your health more than just living here on earth. And so the need for nutritious food and micronutrients is even greater for an astronaut than for [you and] me.”
Demmig-Adams, who has worked on increasing the nutritional quality of plants for long-duration spaceflight missions, also adds that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Her work has focused on duckweed, a rather unappealingly named aquatic plant. “It is 100 percent edible, grows very fast, it’s very small, and like some other floating aquatic plants, also produces a lot of protein,” she says. “And here on Earth, studies have shown that the amount of protein you get from the same area of these floating aquatic plants is 20 times higher compared to soybeans.”
Aquatic plants also tend to grow well in microgravity: “Plants that float on water, they don’t respond to gravity, they just hug the water film… They don’t need to know what’s up and what’s down.” On top of that, she adds, “They also produce higher concentrations of really important micronutrients, antioxidants that humans need, especially under space radiation.” In fact, duckweed, when subjected to high amounts of radiation, makes nutrients called carotenoids that are crucial for fighting radiation damage. “We’ve looked at dozens and dozens of plants, and the duckweed makes more of this radiation fighter…than anything I’ve seen before.”
Despite all the scientific advances and promising leads, no one really knows what the conditions so far out in space will be and what new challenges they will bring. As Paille says, “There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns.”
One definite “known” for astronauts is that growing their food is the ideal scenario for space travel in the long term since “[taking] all your food along with you, for best part of two years, that’s a lot of space and a lot of weight,” as Seedhouse says. That said, once they land on Mars, they’d have to think about what to eat all over again. “Then you probably want to start building a greenhouse and growing food there [as well],” he adds.
And that is a whole different challenge altogether.
We are sticking our heads into the sand of reality on Omicron, and the results may be catastrophic.
Omicron is over 4 times more infectious than Delta. The Pfizer two-shot vaccine offers only 33% protection from infection. A Pfizer booster vaccine does raises protection to about 75%, but wanes to around 30-40 percent 10 weeks after the booster.
That’s because the much faster disease transmission and vaccine escape undercut the less severe overall nature of Omicron. That’s why hospitals have a large probability of being overwhelmed, as the Center for Disease Control warned, in this major Omicron wave.
Yet despite this very serious threat, we see the lack of real action. The federal government tightened international travel guidelines and is promoting boosters. Certainly, it’s crucial to get as many people to get their booster – and initial vaccine doses – as soon as possible. But the government is not taking the steps that would be the real game-changers.
Pfizer’s anti-viral drug Paxlovid decreases the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID by 89%. Due to this effectiveness, the FDA approved Pfizer ending the trial early, because it would be unethical to withhold the drug from people in the control group. Yet the FDA chose not to hasten the approval process along with the emergence of Omicron in late November, only getting around to emergency authorization in late December once Omicron took over. That delay meant the lack of Paxlovid for the height of the Omicron wave, since it takes many weeks to ramp up production, resulting in an unknown number of unnecessary deaths.
We humans are prone to falling for dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases.
Widely available at-home testing would enable people to test themselves quickly, so that those with mild symptoms can quarantine instead of infecting others. Yet the federal government did not make tests available to patients when Omicron emerged in late November. That’s despite the obviousness of the coming wave based on the precedent of South Africa, UK, and Denmark and despite the fact that the government made vaccines freely available. Its best effort was to mandate that insurance cover reimbursements for these kits, which is way too much of a barrier for most people. By the time Omicron took over, the federal government recognized its mistake and ordered 500 million tests to be made available in January. However, that’s far too late. And the FDA also played a harmful role here, with its excessive focus on accuracy going back to mid-2020, blocking the widespread availability of cheap at-home tests. By contrast, Europe has a much better supply of tests, due to its approval of quick and slightly less accurate tests.
Neither do we see meaningful leadership at the level of employers. Some are bringing out the tired old “delay the office reopening” play. For example, Google, Uber, and Ford, along with many others, have delayed the return to the office for several months. Those that already returned are calling for stricter pandemic measures, such as more masks and social distancing, but not changing their work arrangements or adding sufficient ventilation to address the spread of COVID.
Despite plenty of warnings from risk management and cognitive bias experts, leaders are repeating the same mistakes we fell into with Delta. And so are regular people. For example, surveys show that Omicron has had very little impact on the willingness of unvaccinated Americans to get a first vaccine dose, or of vaccinated Americans to get a booster. That’s despite Omicron having taken over from Delta in late December.
What explains this puzzling behavior on both the individual and society level? We humans are prone to falling for dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases. Rooted in wishful thinking and gut reactions, these mental blindspots lead to poor strategic and financial decisions when evaluating choices.
These cognitive biases stem from the more primitive, emotional, and intuitive part of our brains that ensured survival in our ancestral environment. This quick, automatic reaction of our emotions represents the autopilot system of thinking, one of the two systems of thinking in our brains. It makes good decisions most of the time but also regularly makes certain systematic thinking errors, since it’s optimized to help us survive. In modern society, our survival is much less at risk, and our gut is more likely to compel us to focus on the wrong information to make decisions.
One of the biggest challenges relevant to Omicron is the cognitive bias known as the ostrich effect. Named after the myth that ostriches stick their heads into the sand when they fear danger, the ostrich effect refers to people denying negative reality. Delta illustrated the high likelihood of additional dangerous variants, yet we failed to pay attention to and prepare for such a threat.
We want the future to be normal. We’re tired of the pandemic and just want to get back to pre-pandemic times. Thus, we greatly underestimate the probability and impact of major disruptors, like new COVID variants. That cognitive bias is called the normalcy bias.
When we learn one way of functioning in any area, we tend to stick to that way of functioning. You might have heard of this as the hammer-nail syndrome: when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That syndrome is called functional fixedness. This cognitive bias causes those used to their old ways of action to reject any alternatives, including to prepare for a new variant.
Our minds naturally prioritize the present. We want what we want now, and downplay the long-term consequences of our current desires. That fallacious mental pattern is called hyperbolic discounting, where we excessively discount the benefits of orienting toward the future and focus on the present. A clear example is focusing on the short-term perceived gains of trying to return to normal over managing the risks of future variants.
The way forward into the future is to defeat cognitive biases and avoid denying reality by rethinking our approach to the future.
The FDA requires a serious overhaul. It’s designed for a non-pandemic environment, where the goal is to have a highly conservative, slow-going, and risk-averse approach so that the public feels confident trusting whatever it approved. That’s simply unacceptable in a fast-moving pandemic, and we are bound to face future pandemics in the future.
The federal government needs to have cognitive bias experts weigh in on federal policy. Putting all of its eggs in one basket – vaccinations – is not a wise move when we face the risks of a vaccine-escaping variant. Its focus should also be on expediting and prioritizing anti-virals, scaling up cheap rapid testing, and subsidizing high-filtration masks.
For employers, instead of dictating a top-down approach to how employees collaborate, companies need to adopt a decentralized team-led approach. Each individual team leader of a rank-and-file employee team should determine what works best for their team. After all, team leaders tend to know much more of what their teams need, after all. Moreover, they can respond to local emergencies like COVID surges.
At the same time, team leaders need to be trained to integrate best practices for hybrid and remote team leadership. Companies transitioned to telework abruptly as part of the March 2020 lockdowns. They fell into the cognitive bias of functional fixedness and transposed their pre-existing, in-office methods of collaboration on remote work. Zoom happy hours are a clear example: The large majority of employees dislike them, and research shows they are disconnecting, rather than connecting.
Yet supervisors continue to use them, despite the existence of much better methods of facilitating colalboration, which have been shown to work, such as virtual water cooler discussions, virtual coworking, and virtual mentoring. Leaders also need to facilitate innovation in hybrid and remote teams through techniques such as virtual asynchronous brainstorming. Finally, team leaders need to adjust performance evaluation to adapt to the needs of hybrid and remote teams.
On an individual level, people built up certain expectations during the first two years of the pandemic, and they don't apply with Omicron. For example, most people still think that a cloth mask is a fine source of protection. In reality, you really need an N-95 mask, since Omicron is so much more infectious. Another example is that many people don’t realize that symptom onset is much quicker with Omicron, and they aren’t prepared for the consequences.
Remember that we have a huge number of people who are asymptomatic, often without knowing it, due to the much higher mildness of Omicron. About 8% of people admitted to hospitals for other reasons in San Francisco test positive for COVID without symptoms, which we can assume translates for other cities. That means many may think they're fine and they're actually infectious. The result is a much higher chance of someone getting many other people sick.
During this time of record-breaking cases, you need to be mindful about your internalized assumptions and adjust your risk calculus accordingly. So if you can delay higher-risk activities, January and February might be the time to do it. Prepare for waves of disruptions to continue over time, at least through the end of February.
Of course, you might also choose to not worry about getting infected. If you are vaccinated and boosted, and do not have any additional health risks, you are very unlikely to have a serious illness due to Omicron. You can just take the small risk of a serious illness – which can happen – and go about your daily life. If doing so, watch out for those you care about who do have health concerns, since if you infect them, they might not have a mild case even with Omicron.
In short, instead of trying to turn back the clock to the lost world of January 2020, consider how we might create a competitive advantage in our new future. COVID will never go away: we need to learn to live with it. That means reacting appropriately and thoughtfully to new variants and being intentional about our trade-offs.