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Laika, a gene-edited pig, was named in honor of the first living creature to orbit the earth, a stray dog named Laika.

(Courtesy eGenesis)


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.

(Wikimedia Commons)

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.

(Wikimedia Commons)

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.

(Photographer: Ron Cohn/Koko.org)

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.

(Wikimedia Commons)

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.

(Courtesy eGenesis)

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.]

Eleanor Hildebrandt
Eleanor Hildebrandt is a writer and researcher from Seattle. Her work has appeared in the Boston Review and Popular Mechanics. Follow her on Twitter at @ehhilde.

Claire Guest, co-founder of Medical Detection Dogs, with Daisy, whom she credits with saving her life.

(Photo credit: Darcie Judson)


Daisy wouldn't leave Claire Guest alone. Instead of joining Guest's other dogs for a run in the park, the golden retriever with the soulful eyes kept nudging Guest's chest, and stared at her intently, somehow hoping she'd get the message.

"I was incredibly lucky to be told by Daisy."

When Guest got home, she detected a tiny lump in one of her breasts. She dismissed it, but her sister, who is a family doctor, insisted she get it checked out.

That saved her life. A series of tests, including a biopsy and a mammogram, revealed the cyst was benign. But doctors discovered a tumor hidden deep inside her chest wall, an insidious malignancy that normally isn't detected until the cancer has rampaged out of control throughout the body. "My prognosis would have been very poor," says Guest, who is an animal behavioralist. "I was incredibly lucky to be told by Daisy."

Ironically, at the time, Guest was training hearing dogs for the deaf—alerting them to doorbells or phones--for a charitable foundation. But she had been working on a side project to harness dogs' exquisitely sensitive sense of smell to spot cancer at its earliest and most treatable stages. When Guest was diagnosed with cancer two decades ago, however, the use of dogs to detect diseases was in its infancy and scientific evidence was largely anecdotal.

In the years since, Guest and the British charitable foundation she co-founded with Dr. John Church in 2008, Medical Detection Dogs (MDD), has shown that dogs can be trained to detect odors that predict a looming medical crisis hours in advance, in the case of diabetes or epilepsy, as well as the presence of cancers.

In a proof of principle study published in the BMJ in 2004, they showed dogs had better than a 40 percent success rate in identifying bladder cancer, which was significantly better than random chance (14 percent). Subsequent research indicated dogs can detect odors down to parts per trillion, which is the equivalent of sniffing out a teaspoon of sugar in two Olympic size swimming pools (a million gallons).

American scientists are devising artificial noses that mimic dogs' sense of smell, so these potentially life-saving diagnostic tools are widely available.

But the problem is "dogs can't be scaled up"—it costs upwards of $25,000 to train them—"and you can't keep a trained dog in every oncology practice," says Guest.

The good news is that the pivotal 2004 BMJ paper caught the attention of two American scientists—Andreas Mershin, a physicist at MIT, and Wen-Yee Yee, a chemistry professor at The University of Texas at El Paso. They have joined Guest's quest to leverage canines' highly attuned olfactory systems and devise artificial noses that mimic dogs' sense of smell, so these potentially life-saving diagnostic tools are widely available.

"What we do know is that this is real," says Guest. "Anything that can improve diagnosis of cancer is something we ought to know about."

Dogs have routinely been used for centuries as trackers for hunting and more recently, for ferreting out bombs and bodies. Dogs like Daisy, who went on to become a star performer in Guest's pack of highly trained cancer detecting canines before her death in 2018, have shared a special bond with their human companions for thousands of years. But their vastly superior olfaction is the result of simple anatomy.

Humans possess about six million olfactory receptors—the antenna-like structures inside cell membranes in our nose that latch on to the molecules in the air when we inhale. In contrast, dogs have about 300 million of them and the brain region that analyzes smells is, proportionally, about 40 times greater than ours.

Research indicates that cancerous cells interfere with normal metabolic processes, prompting them to produce volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which enter the blood stream and are either exhaled in our breath or excreted in urine. Dogs can identify these VOCs in urine samples at the tiniest concentrations, 0.001 parts per million, and can be trained to identify the specific "odor fingerprint" of different cancers, although teaching them how to distinguish these signals from background odors is far more complicated than training them to detect drugs or explosives.

For the past fifteen years, Andreas Mershin of MIT has been grappling with this complexity in his quest to devise an artificial nose, which he calls the Nano-Nose, first as a military tool to spot land mines and IEDS, and more recently as a cancer detection tool that can be used in doctors' offices. The ultimate goal is to create an easy-to-use olfaction system powered by artificial intelligence that can fit inside of smartphones and can replicate dogs' ability to sniff out early signs of prostate cancer, which could eliminate a lot of painful and costly biopsies.

Andreas Mershin works on his artificial nose.

(Courtesy)

Trained canines have a better than 90 percent accuracy in spotting prostate cancer, which is normally difficult to detect. The current diagnostic, the prostate specific antigen test, which measures levels of certain immune system cells associated with prostate cancer, has about as much accuracy "as a coin toss," according to the scientist who discovered PSA. These false positives can lead to unnecessary and horrifically invasive biopsies to retrieve tissue samples.

So far, Mershin's prototype device has the same sensitivity as the dogs—and can detect odors at parts per trillion—but it still can't distinguish that cancer smell in individual human patients the way a dog can. "What we're trying to understand from the dogs is how they look at the data they are collecting so we can copy it," says Mershin. "We still have to make it intelligent enough to know what it is looking at—what we are lacking is artificial dog intelligence."

The intricate parts of the artificial nose are designed to fit inside a smartphone.

(Courtesy Mershin)

At UT El Paso, Wen-Yee Lee and her research team has used the canine olfactory system as a model for a new screening test for prostate cancer, which has a 92 percent accuracy in tests of urine samples and could be eventually developed as a kit similar to the home pregnancy test. "If dogs can do it, we can do it better," says Lee, whose husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2005.

The UT scientists used samples from about 150 patients, and looked at about 9,000 compounds before they were able to zero in on the key VOCs that are released by prostate cancers—"it was like finding a needle in the haystack," says Lee. But a more reliable test that can also distinguish which cancers are more aggressive could help patients decide their best treatment options and avoid invasive procedures that can render them incontinent and impotent.

"This is much more accurate than the PSA—we were able to see a very distinct difference between people with prostate cancer and those without cancer," says Lee, who has been sharing her research with Guest and hopes to have the test on the market within the next few years.

In the meantime, Guest's foundation has drawn the approving attention of royal animal lovers: Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, is a patron, which opened up the charitable floodgates and helped legitimize MDD in the scientific community. Even Camilla's mother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth, has had a demonstration of these canny canines' unique abilities.

Claire Guest, and two of MDDs medical detection dogs, Jodie and Nimbus, meet with queen Elizabeth.

(Photo credit: Derek Pelling Photography)

"She actually held one of my [artificial] noses in her hand and asked really good questions, including things we hadn't thought of, like the range of how far away a dog can pick up the scent or if this can be used to screen for malaria," says Mershin. "I was floored by this curious 93-year-old lady. Half of humanity's deaths are from chronic diseases and what the dogs are showing is a whole new way of understanding holistic diseases of the system."

Linda Marsa
Linda Marsa is a contributing editor at Discover, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and author of Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Harm Our Health and How We Can Save Ourselves (Rodale, 2013), which the New York Times called “gripping to read.” Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Science Writing, and she has written for numerous publications, including Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Nautilus, Men’s Journal, Playboy, Pacific Standard and Aeon.