On 29 June 2010, Dr. James P. Collins, AIBS President-Elect and Virginia M. Ullman Professor of Natural History and the Environment at Arizona State University, testified before a House Research and Science Education Subcommittee hearing examining the future of the biological sciences. The hearing was spurred, in part, by the National Research Council’s recent publication, A New Biology for the 21st Century: Ensuring the United States Leads the Coming Biology Revolution. Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Energy, the report makes recommendations for how a “new biology” that can advance basic research and solve world problems in the areas of environment, energy, health, and agriculture.

In his opening remarks, Subcommittee Chairman Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) shared an amusing, but informative, personal experience: “Although biology was not my favorite subject in high school - although that may be because it was first semester freshman year and we had to dissect the fetal pig - the new, 21st century biology has me much more interested. I was trained as a mechanical engineer, and when I hear people talking about cells as a systems design problem, I understand the important role of engineers and physicists working in biology.”

The panel’s senior Republican, Representative Vernon Ehlers (MI) - a Ph.D. physicist - commented that he is still getting his head around the complex issues associated with 21st century biology. Ehlers hypothesized, however, that if he were to return to science he might well pursue the kind of questions and interdisciplinary research often described as 21st century biology. Representative Brian Baird (D-WA), who has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, joked that he and Ehlers might form an interesting interdisciplinary team and that they should consider submitting a grant application.

The panel examined the promise of 21st century biology by exploring research happening at the intersection of the biological sciences, the physical sciences, engineering, and mathematics, and its potential to address real-world problems. “We’ll also look at how these potential advances can be translated into technologies that benefit society, and what we need to do to train researchers who can thrive in an area that doesn’t fit into any one department…research at the intersection of biology and engineering, known as synthetic biology…could lead to the development of bacteria that could help clean up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, produce cellulosic biofuels, or even lead to an organism that can detect and destroy cancer cells,” Lipinski said.

“As a former university professor, I’ve seen firsthand the difficulty of overcoming cultural and institutional barriers between academic departments and schools…. But the potential successes that can be realized by having interdisciplinary teams working on biological problems mean that we need to ensure these collaborations continue to grow,” Lipinski said.

Collins told the subcommittee: “The biological sciences will flourish in the 21st century by sustaining strength in its core disciplines while simultaneously supporting research at the intersection of the natural, physical, and social sciences as well as engineering. Research at these disciplinary edges holds great promise for addressing problems in energy, the environment, agriculture, materials, and manufacturing. Interdisciplinary methods cut across disciplines to combine in powerful ways basic research with solving real world problems. Because today’s students are tomorrow’s problem solvers we must also integrate research and education.”

“At the Subcommittee’s request I’ll comment on the environmental sciences, which offer many promising research opportunities. Interdisciplinary research is advancing our basic understanding of challenges such as global change and global loss of biodiversity and suggesting ways in which we might mitigate these changes. NSF-supported sensing systems in the Long Term Ecological Research Network (LTER) and in the proposed National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) are designed to gather enormous quantities of data continuously. These networks of sensors, computers, and people promise to transform how we test basic ecological theory and apply the results to environmental problem solving,” Collins said.

“Molecular methods are accelerating the description of new species, including the discovery of novel microbes that add to our basic understanding of the biosphere while serving as ‘bio-inspiring’ sources of novel energy technologies. At NSF the new Dimensions of Biodiversity initiative is supporting just this sort of grand challenge research in which new knowledge is developed. As this research matures, researchers will need new tools such as sensors that run on small, very long life power sources. New methods must include fast, highly accurate molecular techniques for identifying species and efficient computer algorithms for analyzing, visualizing, and storing large quantities of data. Students entering these fields must be skilled in quantitative and computational methods, understand how to draw on multiple disciplines to address problems, and learn to do science in nationally and globally connected communities,” Collins explained.

Following witness testimony, Baird noted that NSF is still seeking to fill Collins’ former NSF post of Assistant Director for the Biological Sciences. Baird asked whether NSF would seek to fill this position with someone who is familiar with and embraces the concepts of 21st century biology. Collins responded, “Yes.”

Other witnesses appearing before the panel were:

  • Dr. Keith Yamamoto, Chair, National Academy of Sciences, Board on Life Sciences, and Professor, Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology at the University of California, San Francisco;
  • Dr. Reinhard Laubenbacher, Professor, Virginia Bioinformatics Institute and Department of Mathematics, Virginia Tech;
  • Dr. Joshua N. Leonard, Assistant Professor, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, Northwestern University; and,
  • Dr. Karl Sanford, Vice President, Technology Development, Genencor.

Although the hearing considered the promise and challenges of synthetic biology, as one element of new biology, witnesses also discussed training for the scientists who will work in 21st century biology.

Ehlers mused about a friend who after receiving a Nobel Prize in Physics decided that the exciting and important problems of the future were in the biological sciences. Ehlers commented that his friend has had far less impact in the biological sciences than he anticipated. The point, Ehlers suggested, is that we must work to support the development of young scientists. It may be better to help some scientists develop capacity in a couple of fields instead of expecting researchers to first master one field before they seek to develop their skills in another area. Yamamoto suggested that the current training period is too long. There is a need for new scientists to be grounded in a discipline but able to work and communicate with colleagues from other fields. Researchers need to understand what tools and techniques other disciplines can offer to the resolution of complex problems.

 


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