Is biology now in charge?

From the great Laura Deming:

One of my biggest personal fears is working in the wrong field to achieve the goal I care about. If you were around pre-1900s, and wanted to contribute to biology, you should have been a physicist (Robert Hooke, a physicist discovers the first cell, making a better microscope is a major driver of progress). In which field should you work to maximize progress in biology today?

…But something interesting happened around the 1950s. If you look at the most important techniques in biology, in the second half of the 1900s, they’re all driven by tools discovered in biology itself. Biologists aren’t just finding new things – they’re making their new tools from biological reagents. PCR (everything that drives PCR, apart from the heater/cooler which is 1600s thermodynamics, is either itself DNA or something made by DNA), DNA sequencing (sequencing by synthesis – we use cameras/electrical detection/CMOS chips as the output, but the hijacking the way the cell makes DNA proteins remains at the heart of the technique), cloning (we cut up DNA with proteins made from DNA, stick the DNA into bacteria so living organisms can make more copies of it for us), gene editing (CRISPR is obviously made from DNA and with RNA attached), ELISA (need the ability to detect fluorescence – optics – and process the signal, but antibodies lie at the heart of this principle), affinity chromatography (liquid chromatography arguably uses physical principles like steric hindrance, or charge, but those can be traced back to the 1800s – antibodies and cloning have revolutionized this technique), FACS uses the same charge principles that western blots do, but with the addition of antibodies…

Something special happens when a field becomes self-reinforcing. Previously, biology looked to physics and other disciplines for tools to break open new frontiers. But, empirically, since the 1950s, that has all changed.We don’t make mutant mice with x-rays and microscopes – we figure out the gene we want to go after, and we use high-precision biological tools to change it. Computer science has certainly played an important role in processing all of the information now streaming out of biological systems, but the major advances – the core things driving progress in biology forward – have come from biology itself. Biology is eating physics (and, some would jokingly suggest, based on the outperforming endurance of DNA compared to any modern hardware and plausibility of biological computation, possibly computation itself).

Naively, if we can expect n new discoveries / t tools we have, if the tools are static, maybe that’s a fixed number of discoveries per year. But if t tools increases, then we get more discoveries. What if it increases as a function of n?

This is important because it’s a self-reinforcing loop. The more things in biology we discover today, the faster we can discover things tomorrow. Biologists are the new engineers. But their tools look a lot different than any we’ve seen before. Sequencing is the microscope of tomorrow. And sequencing was built by biological tools.

The entire (short) essay is of interest.  Here is more on Laura Deming.


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