Moving Further Afield

In recent talks for iBiology Exit icon  and TEDx Exit icon, NIGMS grantee Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado proposes that because so much of biomedical research focuses on only a handful of model organisms we are limiting our knowledge of biology. He suggests that many important discoveries lie waiting in species that have not yet been the subjects of sufficient investigation. This is a topic of interest to us as well; in fact, Dorit Zuk, director of our Division of Genetics and Developmental Biology, is currently leading an internal working group that’s examining the varied landscape of organisms studied by NIGMS grantees and the new scientific questions that could be answered using a diversity of organisms. We’ll be discussing these topics in future posts.

In addition to the number of organisms we study, other aspects of the biomedical research system may be limiting the breadth of our knowledge. For example, does the expectation that junior faculty work on a problem closely related to their postdoctoral research constrain our explorations to “islands” of study, leaving vast areas under- or unexplored?

The forces keeping biomedical junior faculty within their postdoctoral research areas include the expectations of faculty search committees, grant review panels and funding agencies, as well as the promotion policies of academic institutions. Interestingly, in the chemical sciences, junior faculty are usually expected to develop projects that are distinct from their postdoctoral work, which often involves moving into completely new areas of study. Why the sociology of chemistry evolved so differently in this regard from other fields related to biomedical research is an interesting question.

Should the biomedical research enterprise change its expectations to empower junior researchers to move further away from their postdoctoral work when they start their independent research careers? Would this accelerate the pace of discovery? New programs such as the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Awards (MIRA) for Early Stage Investigators give us an opportunity to revise our expectations for researchers at the beginning of their independent careers. Would this be desirable? What might we look for in assessing outcomes? If we, as funders, successfully made such a change in expectations, would the rest of the research ecosystem make parallel changes to support efforts by junior scientists to leave their home “islands” and move into new territory?

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on these questions.

3 comments on “Moving Further Afield

  1. Hi Jon

    Very interesting set of points which hopefully should generate a great discussion. I think there are distorting pressures from tenuring and funding challenges that confine research programs. Like the idea of incentivizing boldness and risk-taking.



  2. Given that the millions of species on the planet have all different adaptations to different environments and thus different chemical problems to solve, there is certainly a universe of “activities” hidden in the universe of organisms. It would be negligent to neglect them. Besides, there are plenty of useful and scientifically amazing discoveries that have been made using exotic species (think of firefly luciferase, GFP, the various toxins in nature etc.).

  3. We fully agree with the notion that the current focus on a limited set of model organisms has narrowed the scope of fundamental biological discoveries. To cite merely one example, the vast majority of scientific work on fungi has been conducted using just two organisms (S. cerevisiae and S. pombe), both of which belong to the Ascomycetes branch. The other Ascomycetes and other fungal branches such as Basidiomycetes and Chytridomycetes have received little or no attention. This despite the fact that some of the neglected fungi (e.g., Neurospora and Ustilago) were established decades ago and played pivotal roles in several fundamental molecular biology discoveries. The reasons for their neglect are multifarious, but undoubtedly include factors that are extrinsic to their potential for yielding biological insights. Having studied both the “favored” and overlooked fungi, we are aware that the burden of justification for the overlooked systems remains far greater at review panels. A major challenge in the effort to expand the landscape of model organisms will be to correct the encrusted bias against new or neglected models.

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