Invest in basic biology

As a Marine Biologist who has taken a sharp turn after college and ended up graduating with a PhD in Bioinformatics, it’s funny how I keep going back to, learning about and thinking about molecular biology. At one point my dream was to become the “Carl Sagan of Biology” — but that, clearly, hasn’t happened :-) Maybe I felt a need to understand data and software first in order to make sense of the flood of biological data that permeates the modern lab. Maybe it was my need to get involved with software and to understand how it works, how to build it, how to run it. Or maybe I just realized that I don’t know enough about Biology to be the “Carl Sagan of Biology”.

Whatever the case might be, the allure of discovering the governing rules of Biology has been a main driver, for myself and for others, to learn more about the nuances and intricacies of biological processes.

But memorizing biological processes is not fun. Biology professors are asked to teach the students fact after fact, process after process. And some try really hard to connect it to the bigger picture — that everything makes more sense in the light of evolution. Even well regarded Biology books like Karp’s Cell Biology are filled with expressions like “The RNA polymerase needs to open the double stranded DNA…” which creates the impression that the protein “knows” what it is doing. Obviously it’s easier and shorter to say that than to say “The RNA polymerase evolved because cells where the double stranded DNA was opened by some mechanism had better evolutionary success than those that didn’t. And RNA polymerase was in the right place, with the right configuration, at the right time, to be the component that has evolved to perform such a task”. Gnarly, right?

Governing Rules for Biology

Some of the governing rules of Biology have been identified. For example, DNA (or RNA) stores the information bits necessary to create proteins which will participate, trigger or halt different and necessary biological processes. And every 3 letters in that sequence (with a few exceptions) translate into an amino-acid. That is true for all living things on earth and it’s pretty much as close as we can get to a rule of biology (on earth at least). And knowing the sequence of DNA has indeed been very helpful to understand why some people suffer from some diseases and others do not. DNA sequencing of tumor cells is nowadays standard practice for cancer patients since it helps oncologists identify the right treatment that targets the right cells with the right mutations.

However, we are very far from a theory of general relativity for Biology. Some progress has been made in controlling how a cell behaves by programming certain sequences in its DNA or even replacing the native DNA entirely with a sequence of our own making. Cloning was also achieved several times but cloning is “easy” when compared to programming a cell from scratch, let alone a whole organism made up of many types of cells.

Is Biology just a curiosity or can it have a deeper impact?

I truly believe that Biology can have a bigger impact than just satisfying our curiosity. Learning biology from observing how cancer cells with certain mutations behave differently from normal cells, for example, has helped understand how cells have evolved. By studying disease, we understand the normal state. And cancer cells, partially because they are so resilient in a petri dish, have been the rosetta stone for Biology.

Understanding what the “normal state” looks like is the first step toward something much more important which is learning to shift a “disease state” to a normal state. For example, when we observed that diabetes was caused by an abundance of sugar in the blood and noticed that insulin was missing, we learned to shift the “disease state” into a “normal state” by simply adding insulin.

That is why it is so important to invest in basic biology — because when we do, the governing rules of Biology become clearer and a path toward curing all diseases is within our grasp. And whether we learn the governing rules of Biology by studying cancer cells or other types of cells matter less than what we can learn about changing them back to a normal state.

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