Biology research - do ppl have to argue for how relevant+interesting it is?

  • Thread starter Simfish
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Simfish
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Main Question or Discussion Point

So for biology in particular, there are millions and millions of organisms and gene pathways that we still know next to nothing about. And for research in many of them, output is proportional to effort/money invested (in other words, you can still get things to be done without expecting costs to significantly increase). In other words, a lot of biology research is Kuhnian normal science-ish.

So certainly, people have to make decisions about which organisms in particular to study. And these decisions are sometimes arbitrary, and sometimes dependent on factors relevant to whatever people in other areas (medicine, drug development, systems biology) are interested in.

You could get a lot of things done by studying an obscure bacterium, and it's possible that you might discover something unexpected that has *a lot* of relevance to other fields too (a new protein, for example, or a new function of a protein). And no one's going to dispute that your research is legitimate. But that isn't going to prevent people from criticizing your choice, right? Since, after all, you might end up studying an organism that no one cares about.

But are there other factors that drive people to study whatever organisms they choose to study? In ethology, for example, it seems that a lot of research is done to study "charismatic" animals - it's easier to get private funding when you study "charismatic" animals, for example. But I wonder what factors people use to study the protist they choose to study (the malaria protist gets studied far more than any other protist for obvious reasons, but what other protists do people put a lot of effort in understanding?).

Some organisms are used as case studies of more general phenomena too. Crows are used as case studies for the independent evolution of avian intelligence, for example. Other organisms (coelacanths, lancelets, etc) are used as case studies because they're considered to be similar to the common ancestor of two different groups of organisms.

I mean, right now, one of the most interesting things people do is simply to try to map the sheer diversity of bacterial proteins (and the vast families associated with each protein). Anyways, perhaps I sort of already know the answer to my own question, but I'm just curious about specific examples so that I can map the structure of motivation (in biology research) better
 
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  • #2
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Hi Simfish,
I'm not sure what this question is doing on the physics forums, but here goes.

Most the time, the model organism is chosen for biological reasons alone. Certain organisms are very popular. The fruit fly is often chosen because it reproduces quickly and its easy to get a quick turn-around. The nematode worm C. elegans is common because it is transparent and biologist know exactly how and where every single cell divides to make all the cells in the adult (either 959 or 1031 of them). E. coli is simple, C. cerevicie has many of the genetic features of higher organisms but is still simple. The urchin is used because it is easy to look inside and take samples from without disrupting development.
 
  • #3
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I'm still an undergrad, but from what I've seen, biological research is often motivated by health concerns, or with health related goals in mind. That is where tons of grant money comes from, when you are able to link research to possible health related benefits. So like you said, who cares about an obscure bacterium, unless that bacteria is producing a chemicals or proteins that act to repress cancer, or act as a detoxifier or something beneficial.
Another huge aspect of research is documenting the structure and function of molecules and systems. That way, if you could isolate a certain protein from a certain protist that is silencing an oncogene, you would be able infer its mechanism of action because you already know how that oncogene is expressed and functions to cause cancer at the molecular/cellular level...
Also, I think theres enough proteins and systems that we barely understand, using simple model organisms like yeast, c.elegans, drosophila, and lab rats. they may not be appealing to everyone, but they're pretty damn similar at the molecular level and great for research.(and urchins to, my ochem professor was studying urchins for some crazy chemical they produced)
Ebola is a protist right?
 
  • #4
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No, Ebola is not a protist.

Jacques Monod's nobel prize winning work involved understanding the mechanisms of genetic regulation in E. coli. By studying a simple sysyem, he uncovered principles which vastly facillitated the understanding of more complex systems, coining the truism "What is true for E. coli is also true for the elephant".

Similarly, the Nobel-prize winning work done by Tim Hunt involved seeing the molecular changes associated with progress through the cell cycle in Urchins - what he learnt carries through to regulation of growth and division of cells in humans, and how the systems misregulation can lead to uncontrolled growth and division of cell - a hallmark of cancer.

More information on model organisms, and why certain organisms are used to study different systems, can be found on wikipedia:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Model_organism
 
  • #5
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A lot of it does have to do with who's willing to give you money to do the research. Hence why medical-related research is focused on so much.

A granting agency is also going to be more willing to fund you for an established model organism. Not to mention facilities/procedures are already established for model organisms.
 
  • #6
epenguin
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Yes, many organisms were chosen originally for their convenience, e.g. short reproduction times, ease of maintenance.

After that it is rather self-amplifying. You want to work on a problem or problem-type, say developmental differentiation of bone, or mutagenesis, or cancer or expression control... You will get further sooner if you work on an organism that is already well studied. If you chose another one you would have to do years of spadework. Apart from the knowledge of the familiar one in the books, there are the facilities, the collections of strains and mutants you can use, there are establishments with millions of mice and you can have straightaway all the ones known with mutations causing e.g. deafness with all their genetics catalogued. You wouldn't want to start creating your own collection of deaf voles about which little is known.

The number of species developed as models in recent years has increased. 30 years ago all of biology seemed to be at most a dozen species. Then the wide tradition of biology reaffirmed itself a bit and evolution back in fashion because of DNA allowing to do the tree of life even when you can't stop and study each organism in depth.
In the microscopic world whole unknown groups of organisms emerged and they are all around us. At the molecular level the protists have strangenesses for molecular biologists used to animals, bacteria etc. - with more variety of mechanisms than the others put together it seemed.

Then one organism has a very inconvenient generation time and is difficult to experiment on yet more of its biology is known and there is more data collected on it than any other - that is the human.
 
  • #7
A lot of it does have to do with who's willing to give you money to do the research. Hence why medical-related research is focused on so much.

A granting agency is also going to be more willing to fund you for an established model organism. Not to mention facilities/procedures are already established for model organisms.
That's the answer that seems most realistic to me. Great ideas + No argument = No funding

@epenguin: Well, humans are quite easy to study if you ignore morality and conscience. Certainly I'd rather ask someone "where it hurts", than a Bengal Tiger!
 

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