description of evolution by natural selection or the development of relativity theory. In some cases there is a principal driver; in others, multiple factors combine to accelerate progress. New discoveries and new technologies do not guarantee that discovery will accelerate. The world must be ready for change, and the tools and resources must be available to capitalize on new capabilities or knowledge.
This committee believes that the life sciences currently stand at such a point of inflection. Drawing ever nearer is the possibility of understanding how all of the parts of living systems operate together in biological organisms and ecosystems. This understanding could have a profound influence on the future of the human species. It could help produce enough food for a growing population, prevent and cure chronic and acute diseases, meet future needs for energy, and manage the preservation of Earth’s biological heritage for future generations.
The approach of this moment of opportunity in the life sciences has become increasingly evident over the last decade, and in many ways, the New Biology has already begun to emerge. It has become common to hear statements that the 21st century will be the century of biology. What are the factors that have brought biology to this point? And what current ideas, tools and approaches represent the emergence of new capabilities?
The great potential of the life sciences to contribute simultaneously to so many areas of societal need rests on the fact that biology, like physics and chemistry, relies on a small number of core organizational principles. The reality of these core commonalities, conserved throughout evolution––that DNA is the chemical of inheritance, that the cell is the smallest independent unit of life, that cells can be organized into complex, multicellular organisms, that all organisms function within interdependent communities and that photo-systems capture the solar radiation to provide energy for all of life processes––means that any knowledge gained about one genome, cell, organism, community, or ecosystem is useful in understanding many others. Because living systems are so complex, much biological experimentation has had to focus on individual or small numbers of components within a single organizational level. The reductionist approach has helped reveal many of the basic molecular, cellular, physiological, and ecological processes that govern life.
This work needs to continue in the future. Many aspects of biological function remain unknown on all levels. But biologists are now gaining the capability to go beyond the interactions of components within a single level of biological organization and the study of one or a few components at a time. As microbiologist and evolutionist Carl Woese said over 30 years ago, “Our task now is to resynthesize biology; put the organism back into its environment; connect it