Limitations and Possibilities in Biology

Panel at the Allen Discovery Center inaugural symposium spoke of what is possible to know and do
Michael Levin and Tom Skalak at Tufts
“Anything that moves you to the next better experiment you wouldn’t have done otherwise, that shows you a biological system that you would not have otherwise known, that’s a good direction,” said Michael Levin, here with Tom Skalak. Photo: Alonso Nichols
September 20, 2017

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Capping a day full of scientific talks at the inaugural symposium of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts, a panel late in the afternoon on September 19 took on a big topic: the frontiers of discovery in biology.

The crowd at Robinson Auditorium showed the draw that the topic had, ranging from graduate students and postdocs to professors of biology and philosophy to inventors and entrepreneurs—Segway inventor Dean Kamen and Boston Scientific cofounder Don Abele were in the audience.

The panel discussion was led by Patrick Skerrett, an editor at STAT, and featured Michael Levin, Vannevar Bush Chair and professor of biology and director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts; David Kaplan, Stern Family Professor of Engineering and professor and chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Tufts; Tom Skalak, founding executive director of The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group; and Jessica Whited, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and member of the Allen Discovery Center team.  

The biggest limitation for students of biological sciences now is the lack of advanced math and computer science skills, Jessica Whited told the audience. Photo: Alonso NicholsSkerrett quoted Charles Sidney Burwell, dean of the Harvard Medical School from 1935 to 1949, as saying to students, “Half of what we’re going to teach you is right, and half is wrong. Our problem is, we don’t know which is which.” Levin’s response was that “if we think 50 percent is right, I think that’s optimistic.” He went on to say that “we can’t know what’s wrong and what’s right, but we can know what’s moving us forward. Anything that moves you to the next better experiment you wouldn’t have done otherwise, that shows you a biological system that you would not have otherwise known, that’s a good direction.”

Levin is studying what’s called the morphogenetic code. The genome, of course, encodes for the three-dimensional structure of living organisms, and the morphogenetic code “is simply a way to understand how to read out and ultimately control those processes, so that you can have control over the three-dimensional structure so you can make repairs and new structures,” he said.

What’s striking, Levin said, is “the number of things that we don’t know about the relationship between the genome and the body.”

Others spoke about what most surprised them that is not known in biology. “The big one would be evolution,” said Skalak. He gave the example of melanoma cancers that mutate—evolve—multiple times in their lifetimes. Yet that process of evolving is rarely studied, he said. “It’s a very important force for why things are the way they are, and yet it’s been quite neglected.”

For Whited, one big unknown, she said, is sleep and the relationship between sleep and hibernation “and recharging cells in the body . . . and the reason for it. I think it’s fascinating and still misunderstood.”

Asked what the biggest limitation for students of biological sciences is now, Whited said it is the lack of advanced math and computer science skills. Few students in her lab, she said, know how to code—and it’s a skill critical to modern biologists.

Levin agreed, saying that studying computer science—not just computational biology or say, Java, but actual computer science—helps students learn to think like computer scientists; “to me that’s critical,” he said.

Kaplan started even earlier. For him, the sooner “we can get students engaged in these topics and comfortable with math and science the better, in K through 12—it’s critical. More and more programs that would encourage that would help.”

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.