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Funding Basic Science: A Leap of Faith

by Sydney Hampshire

“Ipsa scientia potestas est.

Knowledge itself is power.

Science loves Latin for naming. Organisms, anatomy, and phenomena across the disciplines use Latin and Latin, it seems, has an innate tendency towards poetry. “Knowledge itself is power” directs us towards the need for basic science – because basic scientific principles inform our understanding of everything else around us. Unfortunately, in recent years, scientific research has been hit hard by the notion of profitability. With ever-dwindling budgets and competition for grants, researchers must tailor their research questions to an audience prepared for a corporate pitch. Basically, the common mentality is that if we can’t sell “it”, why should we fund it? If your research proposal doesn’t end with some tangible product that can be packaged up nicely in white boxes, branded as the next revolutionary therapy for X, then you probably won’t be funded. While there is nothing wrong with ensuring real-world applications of research, they should not impede our desire for comprehension of the foundations of the natural world.

New scientists are often amazed to discover that much of scientific exploration is done through educated guessing and that much of scientific advancement occurs through Eureka! and/or That’s funny moments. There is a lot of grey area on the path between what we know and what we want to know. Often, clearing that path depends on seeking knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Even though we may not immediately have a marketable product, in the long run, these discoveries allow us to understand more about basic science and that can lead to surprising benefits that no one could have originally predicted.

Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR)

While the discovery of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) was less accident and more educated-but-ignorant deduction, it still shows the great importance of basic science. Like most modern day scientific discovery, PCR is an outcome of years of scientific research and restlessness on behalf of countless scientists. Most histories of PCR will start with April 25, 1953 when Watson and Crick published their ideas on the structure of the double helix. However, it wasn’t until 1983 that Karl Mullis thought out a process for DNA synthesis that was so simple it had to work!

PCR is, today, an incredibly easy way to create unlimited copies of a DNA fragment from one original DNA strand – in a matter of a few hours. It was conceived by Karl Mullis in 1983 on an evening drive to his cabin. The breakthrough surpassed every other mechanism of DNA synthesis of the day and is now the basis of modern day genetics.

What makes Mullis’ discovery so delightfully amazing is that it occurred through what I like to think of as educated-but-ignorant deduction. Mullis himself has described instances during his search where, “[his] ignorance served [him] well.” Mullis earned his PhD in 1973 but he spoke of how there were gaps in his knowledge that allowed him to consider what others may not have. In this way, Mullis’ idea was accidental. In the years following Mullis’ initial idea, the process of PCR was fully developed and refined.

In 1986, the heat-resistance enzyme Taq polymerase was added to the process from the bacterial species Thermus aquaticus. The new DNA polymerase allowed PCR to run without adding more polymerase enzymes after each cycle. The original polymerase enzyme denatured after each PCR cycle due to the heat. When T. aquaticus was discovered in a hotspring in Yellowstone National Park in 1969, no one could have predicted its great importance for modern day science.

Penicillin

On 3 September 1928, Alexander Fleming returned to his laboratory after a vacation and discovered something “funny”. Prior to his vacation, Fleming had been studying the bacterial genus Staphylococcus and had plated some cultures before he left. Upon his return, Fleming noticed that his plates were contaminated with a species of mold. Although disappointed with the contamination, Fleming soon noticed that the mold growing on his plates released a by-product which inhibited the growth of the bacteria Fleming had plated. Fleming had discovered a metabolite of a species of Penicillin which work as an antibiotic. Penicillins were discovered at a critical time in history and prevented tens of thousands of deaths from infected battlefield wounds during World War II. The huge demand for Pencillins during the war spearheaded a movement to mass produce antibiotics and other metabolites (such as insulin) through fermentation and recombinant DNA technology.

The metabolite Fleming had found pushed other scientists to find the mechanisms Penicillin production and to find analogous uses for this mechanism. For example, after scientists uncovered the means to mass produce Penicillin through fermentation, it wasn’t very long before other scientists started to wonder if the genes for other metabolites could be inserted into the genomes of other bacteria. After a time, this question resulted in the insertion of a human gene, which codes for insulin, into the bacteria Escherichia coli. The recombinant DNA in the E. coli genome means that the bacteria produces insulin as a metabolite. This synthetic insulin is used by diabetics world-wide.

Microsatellites

In the early 2000s, Sir Alec Jeffreys was working away on his research of myoglobin – a protein found in our blood when he discovered a unique repetitive sequence in the gene. Upon further exploration, he found that this repeat changed between patients but that every one of them contained an identical fingerprint region. This fingerprint would literally become a genetic fingerprint – a method of identifying victims, suspects, family members, etc. In 2005, Jeffreys’ research was used to solve the case of The Blooding – a brutal story of two girls who had been raped and violently murdered. Had they been assaulted by the same man? Was the suspect the assailant? With Jeffreys’ research, the police were finally able to identify the DNA samples at the scene as those of the two victims… and then tag them to their assailant. Basic research investigating properties of a protein turned into a revolutionary forensic method.

Conclusion

Science will continue to grow in this way. It will always start with some complicated question that ponders something detailed and complicated. Because we’re far ahead of asking basic questions – we know what’s going on at the surface. It’s time for us to understand what’s going on at the molecular and cellular levels in order to further our knowledge of the world. While technology will continue to strive futuristically, we should be careful not to discredit our origins. Even if basic research doesn’t produce a marketable product immediately, pursuing it can have vast, unforeseen implications. We just need to remember to be patient and take that original leap of faith and have the courage to explore something we don’t yet understand.

Photography courtesy of Zosia Czarnecka.

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