Friday, April 25, 2008

Mask of Biology I: All I Know

The great philosophers had it right when they said "The one thing I know is that I do not know." Truer words never before said of biology. How long ago was it when we discovered DNA? How long ago did we think that, once we had the human genome sequenced, we'd know everything about ourselves? How long ago did we classify things by the 5 kingdoms rather than the 3 domains?

It's an exciting time for the field of biology. It may be difficult to think, but each year something truly revolutionary in the field of biology emerges. I'd like to now extend the philosopher's statement: "The one thing I know is that I do not know, but I will sure attempt to find the answer." I am a biology major and in a couple days I will graduate with my B.S. in biology; I proudly wear my Mask of Biology.

I've often wondered what I learned these last 4 years of undergrad, what would be useful. I take for granted all the knowledge I did acquire (useful or otherwise) and all the skills I've developed (again, useful or otherwise). It's now almost hard for me to view nature the same way as a non-biology, or even non-science, person.

For example, let's take the model organism Drosophila melanogaster (aka, the fruit fly). I can tell you how it develops from an embryo into a larva. I can tell you some of the major genes controlling its development. I can tell you how their reproductive genetics is different from ours, how sex development is different. I can even tell you how to get legs to grow in place of antennae, or eyes to form on legs. While this sounds impressive, I'm always humbled by how much I don't know. One might incline to think, given the last section, that we biologists can "play God" with these organisms. However, what we do is like comparing kids with Legos to professions architects. We know so much, yet oh so little.

I have two groups of friends: a group consisting of largely biology majors like myself, and another group where I'm pretty much the sole "resident biologist." This latter group consists of poli-sci, Asian studies, history, computer sciences, and various engineering majors. I only truly appreciate how much I actually do know when I attempt to answer their questions about biology. For example, tonight I went through a gamut from plant speciation to the human genome project to gene regulation to stem cell research to viruses to mutations and cancer to how our immune systems work. Let's take, for instance, the immune system. I've long known that it consists of more than the "stereotypical" white blood cell. It contains B cells, T cells, macrophages (the stereotypical WBCs), and esinophils, amongst others. But my friend didn't know this, and I was somewhat stunned.

I know I will leave this university with, if nothing else, a deep appreciation and respect for nature and its vast complexity (that, and the ability to read biology papers and de-cypher its esoteric writing). My roommate, DvF-M, believes that in 10 years a computer programmer can completely decode genetics and know exactly what does what and how. His argument is that "it's only a code, we just have to crack it." Well roomie, this code is something the likes you've never worked with because it doesn't follow the rules as strictly as you would like to think.

Biology is "divine" territory. It's beautiful and logical, yet at the same time completely random and irrational. One day we may able to know everything there is to know, this I believe. Yet I also believe that day is a long long long ways away. Even though each year revolutionary papers are published, we're still barely scratching the surface. We're still limited a handful of "model" organisms that we understand well, and all other are mysteries.

My next post will be the long-awaited "evolution" post. And I hope to show how evolution is not a simple concept of "survival of the fittest," but rather something so much more, all-encompassing, and far-reaching in every branch of biology.

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