The first two are disciplines that have turned into tools, and the third is a tool that has turned into a discipline. All three have brought us to the post-genomic era, a phrase that connotes the plethora of information that is pouring in upon researchers. Much of the information comes from genomics, but not all of it.
The primary driver for modern biology, Dr. Cassman said, is the “great engine of molecular genetics.” That quote came from a report in synchrotron radiation, which is something that until about 15 years ago was the exclusive province of high-energy physicists. Now, however, synchrotron radiation is an important tool in biology for conducting research on macro-molecular structures at high resolution. This has been a revolutionary development in biology and it permits sophisticated research on DNA and proteins. Before the adaptation of synchrotron radiation for biology, it would take years to understand the structure of a protein. Such an effort might comprise an entire dissertation for a doctoral student. Now, however, understanding one protein would be one part of a larger research program.
On the whole, the rate of advancement in structural biology has been extraordinary recently. One of the most important papers in structural biology in the last year, which appeared in Nature, concerned the potassium channel. None of the authors was a “card-carrying” crystallographer; traditionally, such research has required the specialized expertise of a crystallographer and biologists have been relatively unconcerned about structure. This example shows biologists’ newly found interest in structure, and advances in information technology have enabled this.
Connected to biologists’ research into cell structure are advances in genomics. Genomics provides a baseline of understanding of the total complement of information in a cell. Of course, there are other things happening in the cell, but understanding the baseline is the starting point for research into the cell.
With the tools of molecular genetics, structural biology, and genomics, the question arises about the discipline’s future path. A reasonable progression in biology would be to first understand the components of cells and their function, then how they link together, and finally to learn how cells interact as complex systems. This is an idealized progression—advances in biology do not take place in such a neat sequence—but it provides useful guidance nonetheless.
The ultimate goal, Dr. Cassman continued, is to understand biology as a complex system. To lay out a research program to attain that goal, several