10 July 2015

Grand challenges for biology

Meghan Duffy, writing at Dynamic Ecology, has a nice post about “grand challenges” in biology. The first time I heard this particularly phrase was at a Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting, where the National Science Foundation was soliciting ideas about what the “grand challenges” in biology are. In other words, this is grant speak.

I have some misgivings about this approach, of asking scientists what they big problems are. I think it’s too likely to be blinkered and limited: like asking city dwellers at the end of the nineteenth century what problems they needed to solve. They’d probably have been adamant about needed more and better horses for transportation.

The NSF has five grand challenges for biology, and so does Meghan. There is some overlap in these lists, but they aren’t quite identical.

  • Predicting individual organisms’ characteristics from their DNA sequence (NSF) / Linking phenotype to genotype (MD)
  • Understanding biodiversity (NSF and MD)
  • Understanding the brain (NSF and MD)
  • Interactions of the Earth, its climate and its biosphere (NSF)
  • Sustainable agriculture (MD)
  • Synthesizing life-like systems (NSF)
  • Origins of life (MD)

To me, “grand challenge” has a few desirable features. It should be something that many people in the discipline are actively working on. That is, it’s a question many scientists are engaged and committed to answering. There are some reasonably clear ideas for what constitutes success.

For those reasons, a couple of the proposed grand challenges leave me cold.

Understanding the brain” is, to me, is not a challenge for biology. Neuroscience is its own discipline now. The descriptions of “the brain” – singular – make it clear that people are talking about the human brain, and not the brains of the millions of other animal species.

Worse, the NSF document talks about the “emergent properties” of the brain, which is code for “consciousness.” I don’t think we have even a clue as to what an answer to that question might look like.

Origins of life” is an unanswered question, yes, and an important one. For a grand challenge, it doesn’t feel like one that a large proportion of people in biology are actively grappling with. There’s a lot of speculation, but I don’t see this as something that people think they have a clear path to make headway on it.

Synthesizing life-like systems” is a weird way of renaming a technology – synthetic biology – as a challenge. I’m not so much interested in life-like systems as I am in actual living systems studied with techniques to (say) make synthetic DNA.

When the J. Craig Venter Institute announced they had created a cell that ran from artificial DNA, Venter said one of the questions they wanted to answer is, “What’s the minimal genome?” What is the smallest amount of instructions that you can have that will allow a cell to be alive? That’s a fascinating question, but unless / until a lot more labs start pursuing it besides the J. Craig Venter Institute, I don’t think it qualifies as a
grand challenge.

Understanding biodiversity” is something that I can get behind, although I’d like it even more if it was a bit more focused. Something like, “How many species are there?” We don’t know that. It would be nice to see basic taxonomy put more in the forefront, because that stuff needs more attention. And just cataloguing all the species is a grand challenge.

External links

How many species are there?

1 comment:

Mike Taylor said...

I don't think "How many species are there?" is even a meaningful question. It depends entirely on how we choose to classify things.