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Specific Claims About Basic Research

I have covered how to analyze claims about the value of animals in past discoveries and now want to move onto some specific examples. There are many sources for claims about the value of animals in research but since the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC) has been the site for recent animal rights activities (once again, I condemn bombings), I thought I would use some of their material.

The University of California at Santa Cruz states:

Finally, it is important to recognize that basic research using animals is needed to provide a foundation for future medical advances. The goal of basic research is to understand the function of newly discovered molecules and cells, strange phenomena, or little-understood processes. Although the benefits to health from this type of research may not be immediately evident, it is an essential part of efforts to understand, prevent, and cure disease. Examples of basic research that has led to important advances in medicine are the discovery of DNA (leading to cancer treatments) and neurotransmitters (leading to antidepressants and antiseizure medications), and development of the tools that led to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). (UCSC 2009) (Emphasis added.)

These claims from the University of California at Santa Cruz are not unique. I want to, at this time, examine the validity of just two: the discovery of DNA and the invention of the MRI.

Discovery of DNA

DNA was discovered circa 1869 by Friedrich Miescher. Miescher was using leukocytes (white blood cells) isolated from the pus on surgical bandages in order to find the biochemical basis for life. According to Dahm:

As part of his protocol, Miescher rinsed the pus-soaked bandages with a dilute solution of sodium sulphate to wash out the white blood cells, then washed the samples with warm alcohol and ether to extract the lipids and other lipophilic molecules. He also digested the cells with solutions of the protease pepsin, which Miescher obtained by rinsing pig stomachs, to break down the proteins. This left him with a powdery sediment. When he added sodium carbonate, an alkaline solution, the sediment dissolved; when he then added acid, he obtained a precipitate again (Human Genet, 122:565-81, 2008). (Dahm 2008)

Miescher published his results in Medicinisch-chemische Untersuchungen in 1871.

I am curious as to which part of this discovery was owed to basic research using animals. The leukocytes apparently came from humans and the chemicals were presumably synthesized. The protein pepsin did come from the stomach of a pig. However, the source of the enzyme is peripheral to the experiment. Even if synthetic pepsin was unavailable at that time, it could have come from human stomachs harvested at autopsy; thus no part of this breakthrough was dependent upon using animals.

If the pepsin is what UCSC is referring to when they herald the role of animals in this discovery, then they are being very misleading. Pepsin from pigs was here used as a chemical and is not an example of using animals in basic research any more than it is an example of using glassware in basic research. Yes, glassware was used but glassware was not the reason for the breakthrough. This is one reason I routinely divide the use of animals in science into nine categories; so the reader will not be misled into believing sweeping generalizations.

Perhaps UCSC means the discovery of the structure of DNA by Watson and Crick. If so, this claim is also perplexing. Watson and Crick relied on x-ray crystallography and the use of physical models in order to establish the fact of the double helix. Which plant or animal or other organism provided the DNA analyzed by Watson and Crick is immaterial, as any life form using DNA would have sufficed.


Watson and Crick's contribution was immense, but they did not actually discover the substance DNA, which had first been extracted from human cells in 1869 by the German scientist Friedrich Miescher. He called the substance "nuclein," thought its function was phosphorus storage, and never suspected its role in heredity. By 1944 biologists had defined the molecule's role as a transmitter of heredity. Then, in 1953, Rosalind Franklin, working with X-ray crystallography, discovered its characteristic patterns on photo plates. According to historian of genetics Edward Yoxen of the University of Manchester, the Watson-Crick breakthrough did not arise out of any startling new laboratory discoveries of their own, nor out of original experiments. Rather, Watson and Crick took it upon themselves to review all the known experimental work with the aim of extracting new significance from it. Their hypothetical model of the three-dimensional structure of DNA was achieved by reasoning and imagination alone. It immediately appealed to those working in the field, but left much data unexplained and could have been wrong, since it was a hypothesis rather than a proof. Decades of experimental research have since provided abundant confirmation. (Milner 2009) [p144] (Emphasis added.)

Or, perhaps UCSC is conflating basic research, which the discovery of DNA certainly was, with basic research that used animals. If so their statement appears to be intentionally misleading as the paragraph starts by referring to basic science using animals.


In 1952, the Nobel Prize was awarded to Edward M. Purcell and Felix Bloch. These scientists’ research on nuclear magnetic resonance led to the development of the MRI scanner. They discovered the physical phenomenon that “certain atomic nuclei that have been knocked out of alignment in a strong magnetic field by a burst of radiation will realign and emit characteristic resonance frequency signals that provide a kind of chemical signature (Amato 1991).” This is central to MRI operation.

A nice example of how basic research in physics is tied to medicine is the fact that in 2003, American Paul C. Lauterbur of the University of Illinois and Briton Sir Peter Mansfield won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for discoveries related to magnetic resonance imaging. Lauterbur, discovered the possibility of creating a two-dimensional picture by producing variations in a magnetic field, the key to the MRI technique, while Mansfield showed how the signals the body emits in response to the magnetic field could be mathematically analyzed, which made it possible to develop a useful imaging technique. Mansfield also showed how extremely fast imaging could be achievable. This became technically possible within medicine a decade later.

In 1991, Richard R. Ernst was also awarded the Nobel Prize. Ernst expanded on the work of Purcell and Bloch, perfecting the technology to the point that it could be used daily by scientists and physicians (Nobel Foundation 1991).

Clearly, the development of the MRI was dependent upon basic research in physics. Eventually, the MRI scanner was used to visualize animals. However, what the early use of animals contributed is less clear especially in light of the fact that the first object scanned was reportedly a test tube (Lauterbur 1973). The development of the MRI was not dependent on using animals.

Once again, I encourage the reader to question claims that appear without proof. Especially when money is riding on the outcome. 


Amato, Ivan. 1991. Nobel Prizes '91. Chemistry: A Certain Resonance. Science 254 (5031):518-20.

Dahm, Ralf. 2008. The discovery of DNA, circa 1869. The Scientist 22 (12):84.

Lauterbur, PC. 1973. Image Formation by Induced Local Interactions: Examples Employing Nuclear Magnetic Resonance. Nature 242:190-191.

Milner, Richard. 2009. Darwin's Universe: Evolution from A to Z: University of California Press.

Nobel Foundation. 2009. 1991 Nobel Prize in Chemistry  1991 [cited August 29 2009]. Available from

UCSC. 2009. The Role of Animals in Medical Advance  2009 [cited 2/21 2009]. Available from


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