The Importance of Basic Research

Sometimes it feels as though we’ve discovered everything. What else is there to find in this world that is covered with people, their roads, cars, boats, and airplanes? We have CT scans, MRI scanners, and 24 hour a day news. Even our i-Thingies can obtain all sorts of health information from us all the time, and Google knows about infectious disease outbreaks before government agencies by looking at trending search terms.

"wormpad" case for iPad 2 with carved Panagrellus redivivus nematodes on front

“wormpad” case for iPad 2 with carved Panagrellus redivivus nematodes on front

But the truly amazing thing about science is that every discovery opens up new unanswered questions. This is what I love the most about science and learning. You are always feeling like you know less and less as you learn new things. One of the latest examples of this is the importance of gut microbes. You’ve probably heard that you have 10x more microbial cells in your body than “human cells”. These are all over your body and not just in your gut. They are in your mouth, on your skin, and in places that the sun doesn’t shine. We know very little about what they are doing, but they are clearly important and seem to influence many things like obesity, response to drugs, and susceptibility to disease.  Everyone’s microbes are different. We are just learning about this huge and mysterious world that is right inside of all of us, and a few years ago, none of this was known.

Worm Belt:  Images of Caenorhabditis elegans from egg to adult stages.  Completely hand stitched.

Worm Belt: Images of Caenorhabditis elegans from egg to adult stages. Completely hand stitched.

Some of you know that I like worms. It turns out that they make great subjects for leatherwork. Right now thousands of people are gathered at the International Worm Meeting at UCLA. A few years ago, I won a prize for my worm belt in their annual art show. The next meeting I won another prize with a worm iPad. I love to go to this meeting but needed to skip this year because of other upcoming meetings and travel.

As much as worms are great subjects for leather work, they are even better to learn wonderful new things about our world. One of the best examples is apoptosis, or programmed cell death. Until some very observant and curious basic scientists spent the time watching cells divide in little worms, we didn’t know that some cells kill themselves. It turns out that you can’t make a worm or a hand or a liver or brain without some cells dying to allow for proper development. If this goes wrong, it is one of the causes of cancer, because cells that should die…don’t.

Recently the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy made a call to action for scientists to tell people about the importance of basic science (#BasicResearch). They realize that there are many discoveries like apoptosis that need to be told–and retold. More importantly, they realize that many discoveries that are quite literally in plain sight or right under our noses have yet to be made.

In my move to the University of Georgia next month, we are going to start a big project where we will take the same little worm and try to learn as much as possible about its small molecule metabolites that make it work. We know a lot about its genes but we don’t yet know how its behavior is controlled by all of its components. We don’t know this for any organism, but it is a lot harder to study this in humans than in worms. This will take years to do, but as we move forward we will discover unexpected things that we were not looking for. Some of these will be distractions and slow us down but others will be interesting new biology that we haven’t thought about yet. I don’t know what we’ll find, but I do know that it will be something I haven’t ever known or thought about. That is the nature of #BasicResearch and why I love it so much.

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