Tuesday, February 01, 2005

More ruminations on biology

After a six-week hiatus, classes start again today. I'm registered for 4 classes but I expect that I'll have to drop one, or change to just being a listener, at least if I want to sleep more than 4 hours a night. I'm actually pretty happy that classes are starting again; I've been kind of in limbo the past few weeks since I couldn't really get started on doing research because I knew I'd have to stop spending any real time on it once classes start. So I've been reading a lot, but there's only so much reading you can do.

One interesting book that I'm just about to finish is "The Eighth Day of Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Biology", by H Judson. It's a very-well written account of the key experiments and people involved in the major discoveries in biology starting from the early 1900's till mid-1975. One of the things I like most about it is that it gives a lot of insight into all the blind alleys that people went down before hitting on the correct interpretation that unified a bunch of seemingly contradictory data, showing once again that science doesn't proceed in a straight line but rather via a series of zigs and zags. It also gives a sense of the personalities of the people involved, from Francis Crick's bold theorizing [he actually hated experimental work and did very little of it, yet he was one of the most influential biologists of the century] to Max Perutz' singlemindedness which led him to work on haemoglobin for over 30 years.

One thing that has struck me in all the "history of biology" books that I've looked at is the fact that just about all of them stop their accounts in the mid-70's. What seems to have happened is that the period from 1930-1980 produced the fundamental insights into what happens at the molecular level, whereas
the "biggest" thing to have happened since 1980 is that we sequenced the genomes of a bunch of organisms. [Take a look at this timeline to see what I'm talking about] While sequencing these genomes is undoubtedly very important, what biologists have been doing for the last 20 years is working out all the implications and fine-tuning our understanding of the mechanisms that were laid out between 1930 and 1980. Basically, my impression is that they've been fact-gathering, with very few "major" new mechanisms being discovered [the only thing I can think of are the recent discoveries that RNA is a lot more "active" in various ways than previously thought, but I'm of course speaking from a position of extreme ignorance].

While fact-gathering is all very well, part of the problem with biology right now is that biologists are drowning in lots of very detailed data, and don't really have any way to cut through the thicket and get to the next level of understanding, which is how to go from all the detailed data back "up" to understanding how life functions at a higher level. I suppose that's where "systems biology", with its focus on understanding biological systems as a whole, comes in. While there are already some examples of this sort of system-level understanding, I wonder how long it'll take before it all comes together in a coherent whole, and whether we're also going to end up with a small number of [relatively] simple, yet extremely powerful mechanisms that have the same sort of global explanatory power as the ones discovered in the beginning of molecular biology.

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