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The Role of Theory in Advancing 21st-Century Biology: Catalyzing Transformative Research
sider the role of the concepts and theories in driving scientific advances and to make recommendations about the best way to encourage creative, dynamic, and innovative research in biology. The charge was to focus on basic biology, not on biomedical applications.
At the first committee meeting, to begin identifying the theoretical foundations of biology, each committee member discussed the theories and concepts underlying his or her particular area of research and addressed how those theories and concepts might connect across the field of biology. The talks demonstrated that biologists from all subdisciplines base their work on rich theoretical foundations, albeit of very diverse kinds. They highlighted the varied extent to which theories are an explicit focus of attention and discussion. For example, cell theory underpins much research, but the theory itself is rarely the topic of explicit attention in the research literature.
The committee concluded that a more explicit focus on theory and a concerted attempt to look for cross-cutting issues would likely help stimulate future advances in biology. To illustrate this point, the committee chose seven questions to examine in detail. The list of questions is not comprehensive but rather illustrative. The questions, as shown below, were chosen to show that a focus on theory could play a role in helping to address many different types of interesting and important questions at many different levels.
Are there still new life forms to be discovered?
New organisms continue to be discovered, some in environments that were once thought incompatible with life. How many new life forms remain to be discovered? What additional strategies for movement, sensation, and chemical synthesis will be found? How diverse are the variations on the patterns of development of organisms’ body plans? How do complicated communities of different organisms affect each other’s evolution and what can be learned from the diversity of social organizations that have evolved in different species? How is diversity encouraged and limited by environment? For billions of years, life was exclusively microbial—to what degree can a better understanding of that early evolution change our understanding of the present microbial world, which is turning out to be vastly more diverse than ever imagined, and the processes that underlie all life forms?
The diversity of life presents a huge challenge to biologists but also a virtually limitless opportunity. Both the unity and the diversity of life are explained by the theory of evolution: All life forms share many characteristics because all are descended from a common ancestor and life has become diverse through billions of years of descent with modification. However, the extent and implications of all that diversity are not yet fully understood. An