Chad at Uncertain Principles, one of my ScienceBlogs siblings, is requesting his co-bloggers suggest the most important experiment or discovery in their field. There are a disproportionate amount of “bio-bloggers” — though we each have our own niche — and he’s asking us to nominate “the most important experiment or observation in biology”. I’m expecting that because of our diverse interests, you’ll see some differences in how we interpret “important”. This leads me to wonder why we have so many life-sciences types at ScienceBlogs and so few math/physics/chemistry types, but that’s a discussion better left for another time.
I’d guess PZ Myers (who is probably thought of as “Pee-Zee” in the US, and “Pee-Zed” elsewhere) will suggest a classic embryology discovery (Haeckel’s embryos or some other pretty picture), something from the early days of developmental genetics (probably from Nusslein-Volhard’s group), an early zebra fish paper (another by Nusslein-Volhard?), or maybe something evo-devo from Sean Carroll or West-Eberhard. I’ll bet Razib will come up with a better classic population genetics paper than I ever would; and, besides, he’s really into the theory and human genetics stuff, wereas I prefer experimental studies of non-human populations. Some of my other fellow ScienceBloggers are harder to predict. I have a general idea of what Tara would consider the greatest biology discovery, but I don’t know enough about her field to make a solid prediction. Your guess is as good as mine when it comes to Hedwig the Owl (aka, Grrl Scientist . . . aka, Living the Scientific Life) and John Lynch.
My nominations are below the fold . . .
I’m going to divide this up into different categories because it’s hard to compare Darwin’s Origin of the Species with shotgun sequencing. Here are the best discoveries in somewhat non-arbitrary categories (basically, I gave the greatest discoveries their own category that explains why they are so great), along with links to the papers (or books) that go along with the best discovery in that field.
Best pre-20th Century Discovery: Natural selection as presented by Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species. Enough said.
Best 20th Century Re-Discovery: Mendelian genetics. Not much to say here, other than it’s hard to imagine any biological sub-discipline without Mendel’s important contribution.
Most Important Study of the Early 20th Century: Alfred Sturtevant‘s genetic maps. The seminal paper would have to be Sturtevant’s 1919 publication “The Linear Arrangement of Six Sex-Linked Factors in Drosophila, as Shown by Their Mode of Association” (available as a pdf here). Sturtevant’s work in the Morgan lab (as an undergraduate) made up a large part of the base on which classical and molecular genetics was built. He also was an important player in population genetics, publishing multiple papers with the also influential Theodosius Dobzhansky. Sturtevant managed to unite the concept of a gene with the idea of a linear chromosome, which was essentially the first step towards sequencing a genome.
Most Important “Discovery” of the Late 20th Century: Whole genome sequencing’s not really a discovery, but it’s pretty damn important. It’s hard to give a single person credit for this; it really was the product of a merger between technology, biology, and business (for a good review, check out James Shreeve’s The Genome War). Craig Venter gets a lot of the credit for the shotgun approach to whole genome sequencing, but the actual algorithm was implemented by computer scientists who also had to the code all of the assembly algorithms that put together the genomic fragments. Of course, without the biotechnology industry, we never would have been able to generate reads at the high-throughput pace required for whole genome sequencing. You can point to the first shotgun sequenced genome, the first eukaryotic shotgun sequenced genome, or the human genome as the single paper to symbolize this innovation, and it would be hard to argue against any of them. The technology behind contemporary sequencing may be going by the wayside with even faster sequencing methods, but the concepts behind the shotgun approach are still quite important.
Biggest Technological Innovation: I’d group the Sanger sequencing method together with the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) as a single technological innovation. (Should we include molecular cloning in here as well?) These innovations essentially paved the way for whole genome sequencing, and it’s hard to imagine one without the other (and it’s hard to imagine CSI without either of them). PCR allows us to amplify DNA, either randomly or focusing on a specific region, for further analysis. This comes in handy when working with small amounts of DNA or if we only want to look at certain sequences. It also allows us to build up enough DNA to implement the Sanger method of DNA sequencing, whereby one of the four nucleotides is used to terminate DNA polymerization. Kary Mullis’s Cold Spring Harbor Symposium contribution (the PCR paper) can be found here and the PubMed entry is here. Sanger’s publication is available here.
Others to Consider: Here are a few other important discoveries I considered, but did not write about because it would take forever to discuss everything I think of as important:
- Microarrays: These are being used for more and more different things every month, from gene expression, to genotyping, to who know what’s next.
- The Central Dogma of Molecular Biology: Beadle and Tatum earned a Nobel prize for the important discovery that genes encode proteins. This one is more of a discovery than most of the discoveries I discussed above, but I was running low on free time and didn’t want to write another entry filled with links (I could write about this stuff forever, and maybe I’ll write an entry on this later).
- Dobzhansky’s Genetics of Natural Populations: One of the greatest collections of science, but I’m a bit biased. The whole collection is a great contribution to evolutionary genetics.
- R.A. Fisher: Yes, I know that’s a person and not a discovery or idea, but the man was so influential within population genetics (and statistics) that he deserves mention.
Please leave any suggestions in the comments section. If you disagree with me, let me know why I’m wrong. But please beware, this list is biased toward genetics (especially evolutionary genetics and genomics), so any suggestions in these fields (or closely related disciplines) would be especially appreciated.