Basic Science and the Human Condition

Sperm from lines of red flour beetles genetically engineered to produce red or green "glow in the dark" sperm.

Sperm from lines of red flour beetles genetically engineered to produce red or green “glow in the dark” sperm. I use these lines in my dissertation work on mate choice.

How does my research on mate choice impact the human experience? I run into some form of this question at least once a year in the feedback I get following the annual talk that I give to fellow students. This repeated question seems to ask why I engage in what’s known as basic science. The fact of the matter is that basic science can lead to huge advancements in solving applied problems. I also don’t believe that all research should be expected to directly impact the human condition, but more on that thought later.

Scientific research can be divided in many ways, one of which is by bifurcating it into the categories of “basic” or “applied”. Applied science, as the name suggests, is about taking scientific knowledge to directly address a specific problem or invent a new technology. Basic science generates novel scientific knowledge. Both are valuable pursuits, but applied science could not exist without the wealth of knowledge developed in basic science.

Because we share an evolutionary common ancestor with all animals, any research investigating the genetics of non-human animals can have an impact on human health research. If a human disease is linked to changes in the production of a certain protein, a researcher can query what’s known about the action of the gene responsible for its production in other animals. Not only can more thorough research about gene function be done in a non-human study system, but there may already be ample information about the function of the gene in another animal. This knowledge crossover to human health is not limited to results from mammal studies, nor even vertebrate studies. The fruit fly buzzing around your kitchen has shed light on conditions from Alzheimer’s to obesity.

Animal research can also provide insights to pest management, due in part to the prevalence of pest animals in scientific investigation. When looking for a subject to rear in the lab, pest animals are an attractive choice because they’re inherently easy to raise and reproduce well – those traits are part of what makes them pests, after all. Learning about what makes certain matings more successful in pest animals also gives you insight into why other matings may be less productive. For example, sterile insect technique, where males are sterilized with radiation and released into an infested area to reduce population size, takes advantage of a tool often used in the study of mate choice.

In addition to animal research, plant research has huge potential impacts on the human condition. Investigations into response to disease or changing environments can be translated into the improvement of crop quality. The transfer of beneficial genetic material, such as genes that increase drought resistance, between species has proved to be a great asset in the ongoing challenge of feeding the world’s growing population.

These are just a few examples of how basic biological researcher can impact the human condition, but as a biologist I do not believe that everything we investigate needs to have a positive human effect as a goal. We live in a remarkable world with “endless forms most beautiful,” to quote Darwin, and we have still only just scratched the surface of how elaborate and interesting plant and animal characteristics arise and change. Basic research helps us as humans comprehend the natural wonder that surrounds us – it explains the biodiversity of our ecosystems, it predicts how our changing environment may effect this biodiversity, and it identifies why the organisms around us do the things they do. In order to describe biological patterns, which may or may not directly impact people one day, one needs lots of data. Basic science provides that data.

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