Biology – The foreseeable future

BMC Biol iconic imageIt’s a year and a half since we last looked at what our Editorial Board thinks we still need to know about biology, and it’s Biology Week in the UK. Good enough reason for another look at the open questions our expert Board thinks are most pressing, interesting or neglected in biological science.

Do we know our planet?

Ecology, not surprisingly is replete with open questions. We don’t know how biodiversity comes about (Anne Magurran), or how to predict what our blundering footprints will do to it (Anne Magurran and Charles Godfray, who roped in Robert May to help frame the questions), or whether biodiversity offsetting is a real possibility for making good the damage done by our trampling boots, or just a mirage encouraged by the wearers.

In any case (all three of our distinguished experts agree), it will require seriously sophisticated mathematical modelling rooted firmly in respect for reality to get anywhere with these issues, and that’s why these two contributions to our Open questions series are included in our forthcoming series Beyond Mendel: modelling in biology, in which three inaugural articles are already to be found – to be launched in November, but open for submissions now.

Do we know our (or anyone else’s) genome? Or metabolome? Or immune system?

No we don’t.

Michael Adams thinks it is more remarkable how much we still don’t know about even bacterial genomes than it is what we do know, never mind the more recently emergent issue of their metabolomes. He is joined in marvelling at our ignorance by Malcolm McConville, with an analogous perspective on the protozoan world, specifically its pathogenic parasite component, and beyond, to the interactions of the metabolomes of host and pathogen.

Meanwhile we are discovering we know even less than we thought about the immune system that protects us (or in the case of protozoan parasites mostly fails to protect us) from the microbial world – having only recently properly recognized the two major arms of the immune system – innate (macrophages & co) and adaptive (lymphocytes and the armory of antibodies) – we now find (Brigitta Stockinger) there are whole legions of categories of lymphocytes in between innate and adaptive cells and whose functions we are only just beginning to chart.

Are we in danger of getting carried away by the technology?

Now that we can focus the full panoply of –omic technologies flow-cytometrically on single cells, we may be mistaking dynamics for diversity (Ronald Germain), and seeing multiple cell types where there’s just one, in different states. Which still leaves much to be discovered about the immune system, on which Germain was writing, but means it won’t yield to a snapshot approach.

What else?

Can we diet our way out of disease (Philip Cole)?

Why are plant cells so much more versatile than animal stem cells (Virginia Walbot)? Plants don’t have a germ line (germ cells, yes, dedicated germline, no) so all cells must be able to build an entire organism from one cell. This enables plants to adapt to their environment, keeping mutations leading to positive traits and losing those that are deleterious to growth.

How can we deal with the drug-defeating heterogeneity of tumor cells (Lukas Sommer)? Changes in tumors may not happen just in a cancer stem cell – we need to look to developmental biology and think beyond stem cells to identify novel players in tumor biology and progression .

And another perspective on the pressing question of how to defeat cancer, from new Editorial Board member Steven Wiley, which will be added to the Open questions series next week – How can we take a broader view of the dysregulation of signaling pathways in cancer cells and predict the logic of such derailments?

To keep an eye out for this short contribution, and more in the series, sign up for monthly content alerts to BMC Biology.

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