After the publication of "The coming Kuhnian revolution in biology", two letters in comment engendered this essay that originally appeared in Nature Biotechnology (15:1224, 1997).
Profit Margins and Epistemology
The response from William Bains' on my own commentary describing epigenesis and complexity as characteristics of a coming scientific revolution was helpful. Bains, a biotechnology investment counselor in London, readily acknowledges the dominant role of a defective genetic detminism in academic and corporate research labs but maintains that "...it does not matter." It does not matter to the corporations or their investors that the grand design for increasing health and well being for all of us is, at its center, terribly flawed. And this is true, he implies, because the recipients of genes, proteins, drugs, and other medicines are as well served by a defective as by an efficient scientific analysis of how life works. We don't need to understand complex processes, we just need to discover new tools with which to fix these processes when they go wrong.
But, as Bains agrees, we are more than our genes; we are complex entities whose health, well being, and longevity are regulated by an interactive, multileveled arrangement of molecular networks whose rules are not specified by DNA. And in his factory analogy of genetic determinism, any part of the machine in production may turn out to be a redundant structure involved in functions never to be guessed at through our random process of mutating the assembly line. However, sometimes we are lucky and a unique genetic structure is found that may be used to engineer a useful product.
In helping to make this point, Bains provides a service. His description of the differences between fundamental and corporate (applied) research in biology could not be better stated, because essentially, or so it seems to me, he is saying that there aren't any differences. As I stated, corporate and academic research in biology have become "biotechnology." There are no organisms in either; there are no wholes but only mechanisms and parts, and the overriding concept guiding this research is "fundamental" or "basic" only in the futile hope that some day the parts and mechanisms will somehow add up to the whole.
The ultimate agents in all of this are, of course, the genes but we have to be careful with the "ultimate." If you mean by it that genes "cause" diseases, for example, then by working on the former in order to understand the latter you are, in some sense, doing fundamental research. However, if by "ultimate" you take the epigenetic meaning that genes and their surrogate proteins are but instruments of a larger mechanism, if you now work on the instruments without regard to the larger mechanism, then something vital to the concept of basic research has been lost.
The revolution I was talking about is predicated on the idea that our concept of fundamental research is degraded. As Werner Heisenberg tell us, "Whenever one treats living organisms as physiochemical systems they must necessarily behave as such."
It is the growing awareness of this confusion that defines our current dilemma and the possibility of a revolution within which we may recover some sense of "larger mechanism" that is coextensive with the organism itself. What then would be a proper relationship between an applied (tool-oriented) biotechnology and a separate basic research entity focused on the organism?
The complete essay by Prof. Strohman is available as a PDF file here.
Richard Strohman is emeritus professor of the University of California at Berkeley, Department of Molecular and Cell Biology. He is a former research director of the American Muscular Dystrophy Association.