So Sir Paul Nurse gave a talk today where he discussed the 5 big ideas in the Life Sciences.
Instead of going through the talk, I’ll just say that he ended it with his 5th big idea – biological organization. It reminds me of discussions I’ve had with colleagues on cell polarity. And in someways it’s no surprise as this is Paul Nurse’s current topic of interest. To generate a front and a back, cells must have a large interactive cellular network full of scaffolds and feedback loops that enforce a differentiation within a cell. Cell polarity cannot be explained simply in describing the polarity of molecules, you can only get insight by looking at how the system works in toto.
Coming back to Paul Nurse, after his talk he fielded questions, and so I asked:
The chemistry within cells relies on two types of networks, one set is robust and self organizing like the cytoskeleton or the cell cycle, the other is a loose connection of factors, each of which can have profound effects on how the first network operates. How fruitful can modeling of these networks be if we do not yet have all the components?
Nurse’s answer was that we could find all sorts of reasons not to perform experiments, but that we should try anyway. In a way I agree with his answer, but I guess I worry about whether our models have ALL of the necessary components. Don’t forget that given enough variables we can construct any model to fit the data. I am constantly amazed at how little we actually know about the inner workings of a cell. And I am amazed how so many people in the biological sciences don’t realize this. So in retrospect I should have asked:
Given that we do not yet know what all the molecular players are within cellular networks, how do we know that any model is a valid representation of what is happening in cells, or whether our models give the right answers for all the wrong reasons?
Ironically someone then stated that the current paradigm of cellular networks depicts molecules within a cell as activating each other in a linear succession and that complicated messy feedback loops are hard to study and even harder to publish within the current framework of scientific publishing. Paul Nurse thought that there were enough individuals interested in systems biology that the science would get out and the truth will be uncovered eventually, but that it might take a long time and that his career might be destroyed in the process. In other words, we don’t know that this approach will work, go try experiments, but be prepared to fail. Honestly if was a senior PI with nothing much to loose, I might try my hand at Systems biology, but for a young scientist why go there when there are lots of fundamental properties within cells yet to be discovered?