Every holiday season, I’ve struggled to explain to my family of accountants, firefighters, and lawyers why basic science research is important. They never seem to believe that my work on frog-eating bats is anywhere near as important as applied research aimed at curing disease or addressing world hunger. What they don’t seem to understand is that basic and applied science are intertwined.
Basic science “turns on the lights”
The scientific method is iterative. It goes from observation, through experiment, analysis and eventually to conclusion. Then it goes again, with another researcher generating a new question based on previous conclusions. I believe the first few turns of the scientific method almost always have to be basic science questions..
Think of basic science as turning on the lights in a room. Applied science is like rearranging the furniture in the room; as you can imagine, it’s a whole lot easier with the lights on. Basic science has been quietly facilitating applied research for as long as it has been done. I’m going to give you a peek behind the scenes, and how this basic science has been illuminating and inspiring other researchers for generations
How bacterial immune systems make the news (a lot)
CRISPR, a new super powerful genome editing tool, has made headlines, from a promising cancer treatment to an ethical dilemma. However, the humble basic science behind CRISPR is an equally fascinating story.
The first inklings of CRISPR were stumbled upon in 1987 by scientists in Japan in the course of an experiment exploring the way that Escheria coli, a bacteria, breaks down phosphate. After countless experiments by several research groups, scientists finally worked out that CRISPR was a part of the bacterial immune system in the early 2000s. However, it wasn’t until 2013 that CRISPR really made the jump from basic to applied science with its use as a genome editing tool. For the first ~20 years that scientists knew about CRISPR, it was a primarily basic science topic. Now, that same research has revolutionized science. You can’t always predict what you’ll find when you turn the lights on with basic science.
From one weird plant to feeding the world
Back in 1996, a group of scientists were studying a sickly Arabidopsis plant. Arabidopsis is a model plant species, meaning that it is one of the best studied plants but has no agricultural value. Instead of having a full rosette of leaves near the ground with one large stem, the defective plant had leaf rosettes going up the stem and grew in a halting stop-and-go manner. This group of scientists wanted to understand why this mutant plant looked so strange. Through studying this mutant, they discovered a gene called WUSCHEL (WUS), which is responsible for maintaining the shoot meristem, or the part of the plant that is responsible for growing above the ground.
Through the synergistic relationship of basic and applied research, this obscure 1996 finding turned into a massive agricultural innovation. In 2016, a separate group of researchers applied the body of knowledge regarding the WUS gene to develop a more efficient way to transform corn. Transformation is when you pass small bits of genetic material (DNA) into plant cells.
Corn is the world’s most productive crop, but before this innovation, only a handful of corn types could be transformed. That means that only a few types of corn could benefit from gene editing capable of increasing disease resistance, drought tolerance, and corn production. What was once an obscure basic science question about a weird plant eventually facilitated the creation of more robust and productive corn that can better feed the world.
Basic research “turns on the lights” and allows us to see the intricacies of biological processes. Meanwhile, applied science focuses on “rearranging the furniture” by altering biological processes to better suit human needs. Basic science questions may not always have an immediate utility like their applied science counterparts, but without them, we would be in the dark.