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Scientific progress: The heroic and classical periods

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Biology needs to be an integrative subject
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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Many people working in experimental biology simply think that when they've got it all... they've got the long list of components and have it all together, that there will be a blinding insight that will be achieved. And of course one has to disappoint them because the real task of biology will yet remain to be done, which is the integrative aspect. Now, it is to me open to question whether we will be able to encompass an explanation of behaviour within our own, within our own heads, as indeed within the head of one... one person. And so it remains to be seen how this explanation will... will actually be reached. It may be true that there's a computer model somewhere which does this, but will people feel they understand it? Now, I think to answer that question is... it's very difficult because certainly I'll say that people today would... people today, scientists today will say, I don't believe I understand it, right. Now, in the early days of crystallography I noted that the only person who understood the structure of a given molecule was the person who actually solved that structure. That is, he had become so familiar with the detail of it, and he had become so recognising of all the problems that were there in putting it together that he fully understood it. So Max Perutz was the only person who understood the structure of haemoglobin. And David Phillips was the only person who understood the structure of lysozyme at one point, right. Now of course we have hundreds of these structures and if you were to ask a molecular biologist, anybody today, what do you think, do we understand the structure of protein molecules? He'll say- sure. Why? He won't say- he'll... he'll agree we don't understand how they fold up, but we understand...but he'll say we understand the structure. Why? Because he's somehow become convinced by this demonstration over and over again that if you get a crystal and stick it into a machine, the machine gives you all these spots, you can take these spots and take them through another machine, then get these beautiful coloured drawings that are published, these models. Then you can go and buy computer programs or you can get access to these models, and some of them are printed, pictures of them are printed, you can look at them in 3-D, and you can have the feeling that is... so what we need, I think, is confidence in the kind of conceptual structure that may exist in other people and maybe that's the clue, that there's a kind of communal, if you like, mental fashion that emerges to say, yes we understand this protein structure. Although no one there could reproduce, you know, the structure of haemoglobin, for example, and in fact no one would want to unless they were working on it. So I think that this will... this will emerge in the same way. The integrative work will be done in great detail  — has to be done in great detail — on very circumscribed problems. And then once those are solved, then this will be the style with which you solve such problems and this will now become to be accepted as the solution and people will just wonder why they ever asked such questions 50 years ago.

South African Sydney Brenner was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002. His joint discovery of messenger RNA, and, in more recent years, his development of gene cloning, sequencing and manipulation techniques along with his work for the Human Genome Project have led to his standing as a pioneer in the field of genetics and molecular biology.

Listeners: Lewis Wolpert

Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology of University College, London. His research interests are in the mechanisms involved in the development of the embryo. He was originally trained as a civil engineer in South Africa but changed to research in cell biology at King's College, London in 1955. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1980 and awarded the CBE in 1990. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999. He has presented science on both radio and TV and for five years was Chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science.

 

 


Listen to Lewis Wolpert at Web of Stories

 

 

Tags: David Phillips, Max Perutz

Duration: 4 minutes, 25 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 29 September 2010