Keep the expectations real

“The promise of a revolution in human health remains quite real,” wrote Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, in an essay published March 31 in Nature. “Those who somehow expected dramatic results overnight may be disappointed.” (From Wired Science)

Collins–writing about progress in genomics over the past ten years since the human genome’s first draft–sounds like Barack Obama talking about the health insurance reform package.

One of the things I’ve mentioned here a number of times is that the whole question of figuring out how genes and other life processes put us together and what’s happening when disease strikes has turned out to be a lot more complicated than scientists thought ten years ago. Collins’ explanation has an air of defensiveness.

I happen to be reading Dennis Bray’s Wetware: A computer in every living cell. Bray is a systems biologist and the book is an excellent tour not only of the intricacies of genomics but of other informational systems of the cell that play a role in how a cell works. It’s mind-blowing how intricate and nuanced the many, many molecular processes of even a single cell are. Just one cell is perhaps the universe’s most elaborate Rube Goldberg device. Everything that happens is a frenetic, dynamic interplay of molecules banging together with stochastic–not certain–outcomes. It’s a wonder it works at all!

But work it does, and truly it’s a wonder worthy of deep contemplation. We only know a portion of the details about cellular systems, so it’s going to be a long time until many of the very pragmatic results people want,  like curing complex diseases, are reached.

We humans have been doing science in a rigorous way for only a few hundred years. And only in recent decades have we begun to tackle the really complex systems in our world: the cell, the brain, ecosystems, our climate. You’ve got to step back and take satisfaction in what’s been done so far and enjoy the eager anticipation of what’s to come.


1 Response to “Keep the expectations real”

  1. April 13, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    David, the snippet below from my “The Principle of Recursive Genome Function” may be relevant (full text is easily Googled). The paper was published in 2008 – that makes “biology” 233 years young, compared to over two millennia of the more exact science of “physics”. Biophysicists, like me, are having a very hard time walking the tightrope between two very unequal pillars…

    [snippet] Genomic function has hitherto been a strange exception to the widespread modeling of living and non living systems in terms of recursion. This singularity is especially peculiar since great physicists of the last century already predicted that our times would become the century of biology and that their physics-minded thinking processes, as given in Wiener’ Cybernetics [35] explicitly invoked feedback as a primary principle in animal and machine. Schrődinger’s What is Life? [36], von Neumann’s The Computer and the Brain [37] and Szilárd’s A theory of aging [38] argued in unison that information-theoretic aspects would become key to a future understanding of biology. However, biology is a very young science – it is a mere 231 years since its coinage [39]. Genetics, as we knew it in pre-ENCODE genomics, just slightly exceeds a single century [40, 41]. Thus, the mathematical rigor that has characterized physics for over two millennia since Aristotle ([42], ca. 400 B.C.) could not be hastily enforced on unripe subjects who were, moreover, for a long time somewhat unready and occasionally unwilling.

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