Friday, November 30, 2012

Does Scientific Research Need a Purpose?

A recent article in Science by the title of "Does Scientific Research Need a Purpose?" addresses something I think is very important to keep sight of... some of the most important scientific discoveries come from the most unexpected places.  The whole of the human genome project and all of the biomedical advances in genetics that have been made in the past few decades would not have been possible if not for scientists who were curious about whether or not bacteria could live in certain hot springs in Yellowstone Park.  And similarly, almost all of the work that has been done in biomedical research in the past couple of decades would not have been possible if it weren't for researchers who were interested in studying North American jellyfish.  That's right, jellyfish.  See, the bacteria in Yellowstone have an enzyme called Taq polymerase that is stable at high temperatures, allowing for its use in amplifying DNA rapidly, which is needed for gene sequencing, and was perhaps the most important advance that made the human genome project possible on a reasonable timescale.  As for the jellyfish, they make a protein that glows when you hit it with light of a certain wavelength (like a highlighter under a blacklight).  By joining this protein to other proteins, or by engineering genes in other animals to make this protein, biologists are able to visualize gene activity and the localization of proteins within individual cells.  This level of detail allows biologists to track individual cells during development or in disease states like cancer or Alzheimer's and has led to numerous breakthroughs at almost every level of biology.  So much so, that this discovery was awarded a Nobel prize in 2008.  Anyway, the point of all of this is that, while it is easy to get caught up in the idea that scientific research should have a somewhat short-sighted focus, like studying cancer cells to find ways to treat cancer, this is not always how science works, and if we start dismissing, overlooking, or under funding scientific research that asks seemingly irrelevant questions like, "I wonder what this jellyfish looks like under a blacklight" we may inadvertently delay some "more relevant" discoveries by several decades.  Of course, this is not to say that we should abandon studying cancer cells, rather I believe we should be pursuing BOTH the science that seems relevant AND the science that may not seem so relevant (yet).