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Does Basic Research Matter?

From Alexander Fleming’s accidental discovery of Penicillin that launched a revolution of antibiotic discovery, to Murray Gell-Mann stumbling upon data that revealed the presence of subatomic quark particles, basic research has delivered discoveries important to human society. Yet, the need for basic research remains under scrutiny. How does a desire to understand the phenomena of the world around us inform applied work? Our panel chimes in with their views on basic research.

Do you think basic research matters? Why?

Mallory: Applied research saves lives and solves problems, but basic research provides a foundation to formulate questions. I believe there is something deeply human about pursuing a question for the pure and simple sake of knowing the answer.

Julie: Basic research serves a critical role in the development of new ideas, technologies, and ways of approaching science. A headline describing a cool new technology, a revolutionary drug, or a ground breaking discovery is often the product of years of basic science research, followed by applied research and development. Our ability to continue to make discoveries relies on earlier iterations of basic research, often in seemingly unrelated fields.

Chelsea: In some ways the splitting of research into basic and applied categories reminds me of the divide in wilderness conservation between utilitarian (nature provides valuable goods for us) and transcendental (nature has an essential value independent of us) ethics. Utilitarian arguments for conservation fit nicely with our economic system, and cost-benefit analyses can be effective tools for defining priorities. Limited research funds establish the need for priority-setting in science and with recent congressional budget cuts to the National Science Foundation, we’ve seen the utilitarian view of science research maintained. Science that doesn’t deliver tangible benefits to society is valued lower. The transcendental approach to wilderness conservation (and science research) is rooted in awe and curiosity, instead of immediate impact. I’d like to argue that curiosity and knowledge production is a fundamentally important part of human culture, just like a beautiful, ‘useless’ landscape. There is value in asking questions without an overarching agenda. We just aren’t ready to quantify it. Conservation is supported by both utilitarian and transcendental perspectives, just like research is both basic and applied. To say that one matters more than the other totally discredits their interdependence. Basic research relies on applied research for connection to human society and purposeful questions. Applied research needs the findings and pure passion of basic research.

How does basic research matter in the context of your own research?

Erin: In the relatively young field of microbial ecology we are in the early stages of understanding the diversity of the microbes that inhabit this world, and the processes they carry out. A recent publication just expanded our knowledge of the evolutionary diversity of microbes by about 2/3 (Hug et al. 2016). My research seeks to deepen our understanding of different environments, which microbes are there, and what they are doing. By sampling broadly in an environment I cast a wide net, and from there I can ask more targeted questions. For example, I recently received sequence data from river wetlands that will allow me to answer the question: what microbes are there? With this dataset I can then focus on specific organisms of interest, in this case, those contributing to mercury cycling. The impacts of these mercury-cycling microbes will be related back to policymakers to inform management practices of these wetlands.

Can you provide an example of a discovery in basic research that has led to an important application?

Julie: Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a critical tool in biology that allows scientists to synthesize large amounts of DNA in the lab. This is useful for a variety of applications such as cloning, DNA fingerprinting, and DNA sequencing. The story of how PCR was developed exemplifies how discoveries in basic research can contribute to revolutionary applied technologies.

The idea of PCR was first conceived by Dr. Kary Mullis, who hypothesized that a reaction using large swings in temperature to melt and re-form DNA would facilitate multiple rounds of DNA replication using a purified DNA replication enzyme (polymerase). Early versions of the reaction were expensive and inefficient as the enzyme used to copy DNA would breakdown each time the temperature was raised, requiring the addition of costly enzyme at each step.

The solution to this problem came from a bacterium called Thermus aquaticus, whose enzymes are able to withstand extremely high temperatures. The heat tolerant DNA copying enzyme (Taq polymerase) from Thermus aquaticus was eventually isolated and fine-tuned into the enzyme used in PCR today.

Thermus aquaticus was isolated by Dr. Thomas Brock 20 years earlier from a hot spring at Yellowstone National Park. Dr. Brock was a pioneer environmental microbiologist whose hypothesis that life could survive at extremely high temperatures led to the discovery of microorganisms living in the harsh, hot environments of Yellowstone National Park’s hot springs. Dr. Brock may have hypothesized that an organism isolated from an extremely hot environment could be a useful tool, but surely he could not have known that components of his discoveries would revolutionize molecular biology.

Mallory: CRISPR-Cas, an incidental and curious observation from a cloning experiment almost 30 years ago, is revolutionizing modern biology. If the term CRISPR fails to ring a bell, I recommend listening to this Radiolab podcast for an excellent rundown. Briefly, CRISPR-Cas equips bacteria and archaea with an "immune system." CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) are small repetitive segments of DNA scattered throughout the genomes of bacteria and archaea, and the spacers between these segments contain chunks of viral DNA. Similar to a ‘most wanted’ poster, the cell recognizes unwanted foreign DNA from these spacer sequences. Cas proteins (CRISPR-associated proteins), which are basically DNA scissors, cleave the invading viral DNA!

Two brilliant women of science, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charptentier, championed the research behind co-opting this microbial defense mechanism for genome modification in other systems, including humans. The strength of CRISPR-Cas genome editing tools hinges on its ability to target specific pieces of DNA. It is an incredibly powerful tool. For example, scientists can engineer mosquito embryos with CRISPR-Cas to reduce rates of malaria transmission. Late last year, oncologists introduced CRISPR-Cas modified cells into humans to treat an aggressive lung cancer. I’m excited for what this technology means for the future of medicine and agriculture, but ongoing debates on licensing and ethics are important conversations we need to have together. In the meantime, I see no harm in indulging in Jennifer Lopez’s new bio-terror procedural. Maybe they need a fact checker?

This week's panelists: Mallory, Chelsea, Julie, and Erin