A Slice of Life
One biologist’s view of modern biology



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Nanobiology and the Machinery of Life


Previous essays in this series:

The State of the Discipline in Nursing
—Helen O'Shea, Professor of Nursing

The Differences That Divide Us: Is talk of reconciliation in the academy only talk?
—Amy S. Lang, Associate Professor, Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts

In Consilience—The Unity of Knowledge, E. O. Wilson, population biologist and one of the major players in the development of the discipline he christened sociobiology, makes this assertion: “The main thrust of the consilience world view is that culture and hence the unique qualities of the human species will make complete sense only when linked in causal explanation to the natural sciences. Biology in particular is the most proximate and hence relevant of the scientific disciplines.”

There are certainly those, including some practicing biologists, who would disagree with this assertion, but there can be no doubt that modern biology, its practice and its practitioners, has had and will continue to have a significant impact on the human condition. One manifestation of that impact at Emory is the creation within departments other than biology of clusters or research and teaching areas with a biological focus. Thus, Emory’s Department of Chemistry has a biomolecular cluster, one of the research areas emphasized by the Department of Physics is biophysics, and our psychology department has a subdivision of psychobiology, soon to become neuroscience and animal behavior.

In what follows I will highlight some of what I consider to be the important biological problems which the tools of modern biology have positioned us to solve. My choices are somewhat eclectic and obviously reflect my own biases. To conclude this essay, I will consider some extra-scientific questions that are raised by recent developments in modern biology.

Among the many important biological problems or research areas currently under investigation are the following.

Functional genomics.
At this writing, the DNA sequences of the genomes of over eight hundred organisms have been determined, completely or in part. One interesting outcome of the analysis of those sequences is the observation that, depending on the organism, 40 to 50 percent (or more) of the putative genes in the sequenced genomes are of unknown function. Some of those genes will prove to be “uninteresting”—that is, they will turn out to be genes with functions identical to those of other genes whose functions have already been established. Functional geno-mics seeks to determine the functions of all the genes in the genome of an organism. For example, genes required for the lifestyles of human pathogens will be particularly important to characterize. What specific genetic processes allow those organisms to survive in a human host and in many cases to avoid the host’s defense mechanisms? Functional genomics will provide answers to these and similar questions.

Brain function. There is now a high probability that the mechanisms responsible for the function of the human brain can be discovered and understood using the tools of modern biology—such as molecular genetics, biochemistry, physiology, and cell biology. There is hope and belief that it will be possible in the near future to understand how the physical and chemical functions of the brain are transformed into thought and cognition—how brain function becomes mind function.

Structural biology.
This emerging discipline employs physical tools such as x-ray diffraction and magnetic resonance imaging to examine and analyze the structure of biologically important molecules, especially proteins. Structural biology has provided important insights into the relationship between structure and function in biological molecules. Understanding such relationships will not only increase our knowledge of those systems; that understanding can also be used to manipulate those systems in rational and practical ways. It has become possible, for example, to engineer protein molecules to react with compounds other than those with which they normally interact in nature. Protein engineering promises to have a significant positive impact on the pharmaceutical, agricultural, and food processing industries, and it may also prove significantly useful in remediating toxic wastes via biological means.

Biodiversity. The world’s oceans are quite literally teeming with life, including thousands if not tens of thousands of species other than those with which we are most familiar. Only 1 to 10 percent of known marine microorganisms, for example, have been grown in the microbiology laboratory. It is an absolute certainty that many of those organisms will be found to produce natural products that will be useful to us. Already, some microbes that live in extreme marine environments have been found to produce useful antimicrobial agents. We can only guess at the spectrum of antibiotics, antiviral agents, and other useful products that these organisms have the capacity to produce. What we know of this capacity now makes it essential that we work to preserve the ecosystems in which these and other potentially valuable species (indeed in which all species) live. It is a crime against nature to destroy these systems wantonly and thus to bring about the extinction of species that inhabit them, but it is also a crime against humanity to eliminate with that destruction all possibility of ever developing beneficial and productive relationships with those species.

That’s the good news. What, then, are some of the issues and challenges we face either because of or in spite of the developments of modern biology?

Biopolitics. In 1999 the Kansas State Board of Education removed the teaching of evolution from the state’s science curriculum. While that move has recently been reversed, it is remarkable that, nearly seventy-five years after the Scopes trial, the evolution of the species, for which there is overwhelming physical and biological evidence, remains a matter of social and political controversy. Evolution is science and science should be taught to all our citizens.

The threat of bioterrrorism.
The events of September 11, 2001, have made us painfully aware of our vulnerability to attack by those determined to diminish our society. At this writing, it is not clear whether the recent cases of anthrax in this country are the result of organized terrorist activity or the actions of a single, deranged individual. In any case, there are many biologists who argue regarding the possibility of an organized attack using biological or chemical weapons that the question is not “if” but “when.” Given this situation, the scientific community and society in general both must ask and answer important political and social questions. Should there be more support for research on biological and chemical and weapons and on protection and defense against them? Do we scientists and academics need to educate ourselves, our students, and the general public more fully about the nature of biological and chemical weapons and about the steps to take in the event of attacks involving those weapons? One biologist’s view: a resounding “yes” to all these questions.

How should recent developments in biology inform the teaching of the subject in our schools?
The description of a workshop planned for the 2002 annual meeting of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology reads, “As a result of the revolutions in genomics, bio-informatics, computational chemistry and biology, and proteomics it is no longer sufficient to teach classical biochemistry and molecular biology to students. Students today must be familiar with both the process and the promise that these new areas of biochemistry and molecular biology hold.” How do we structure courses in biology, at all levels, to ensure that students are provided both with sufficient classical background in the discipline and with current theory and practice? What level of computer proficiency, for example, will be required for students to understand and to manipulate genomic and structural data? Answering these questions will require that we re-think how biology is taught at all levels, kindergarten through graduate school, and that those of us at the cutting edge of biological research be willing to work with educators in the k-12, college, and university systems to develop new and comprehensive curricular approaches to the teaching of biology.