Decreased sequencing costs have led to an explosion of genetic and genomic data. These data have revealed thousands of candidate human disease variants. Establishing which variants cause phenotypes and diseases, however, has remained challenging. Significant progress has been made, including advances by the National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded Undiagnosed Diseases Network (UDN). However, 6000-13,000 additional disease genes remain to be identified. The continued discovery of rare diseases and their genetic underpinnings provides benefits to affected patients, of whom there are more than 400 million worldwide, and also advances understanding the mechanisms of more common diseases. Platforms employing model organisms enable discovery of novel gene-disease relationships, help establish variant pathogenicity, and often lead to the exploration of underlying mechanisms of pathophysiology that suggest new therapies. The Model Organism Screening Center (MOSC) of the UDN is a unique resource dedicated to utilizing informatics and functional studies in model organisms, including worm (Caenorhabditis elegans), fly (Drosophila melanogaster), and zebrafish (Danio rerio), to aid in diagnosis. The MOSC has directly contributed to the diagnosis of challenging cases, including multiple patients with complex, multi-organ phenotypes. In addition, the MOSC provides a framework for how basic scientists and clinicians can collaborate to drive diagnoses. Customized experimental plans take into account patient presentations, specific genes and variant(s), and appropriateness of each model organism for analysis. The MOSC also generates bioinformatic and experimental tools and reagents for the wider scientific community. Two elements of the MOSC that have been instrumental in its success are (1) multidisciplinary teams with expertise in variant bioinformatics and in human and model organism genetics, and (2) mechanisms for ongoing communication with clinical teams. Here we provide a position statement regarding the central role of model organisms for continued discovery of disease genes, and we advocate for the continuation and expansion of MOSC-type research entities as a Model Organisms Network (MON) to be funded through grant applications submitted to the NIH, family groups focused on specific rare diseases, other philanthropic organizations, industry partnerships, and other sources of support.
Keywords: C. elegans; Drosophila melanogaster; Model organisms; Undiagnosed diseases; Zebrafish.