Humility

Ego is as much a part of science as it of any other profession, maybe more so. The money can be decent, but it’s not a driving factor in why we play the game; recognition of your work is vitally important, so it’s reasonable to say there are plenty of egos in science.

On the other hand, discovery itself can be an act of humility. I am reminded of this based on a paper that was recently published describing a new synthetic, made in a laboratory microorganism. The organism, dubbed Syn3.0, is really a very stripped down version of a simple bacterium that already had a pretty small genome of around 1500 genes — typical lab bacteria have 2500 – 5000 genes. What these scientists did was eliminate all the genes the organism could do without, leaving only genes it needed for growth on a lab food source. This was actually a remarkable technical achievement that involved synthesizing the genome from scratch numerous times, then not only figuring out what the nonessential genes were, and removing them, but rearranging how the remaining genes are organized, and re-implanting the new genome in the cell and making it grow. It took a large team of scientists five years.

When they were done they had stripped two-thirds of the original genome away, leaving 473 genes required for this microbe to grow at a reasonable rate. As the scientists themselves remarked, one of the most amazing things was that when they were done nearly a third of the genes that remained were of unknown function. That is of 473 genes essential for life, there are 149 of them that we don’t know what they do. This is remarkable. When you think that over the past 50 years literally tens or hundreds of thousands of smart people around the world have devoted their careers, and untold number of hours to understanding the basic biology of the cell at the genomic level, yet we still don’t know what a third of it is doing. If this is not enough to make one humble to the vast complexity of life, I don’t know what is.

Syn3.0 was made, or created, by the J. Craig Venter Institute. Craig Venter was the first person (with a whole bunch of colleagues) to sequence a complete microbial genome over 20 years ago. He then sped the whole process of sequencing the first human genome up by at least five years (finished in 2003). In fact, an earlier institute of his (named TIGR) sequenced the first bacterial genome that I worked with several years ago. He named his new institute after himself. I’ve known a few people who worked for Craig over the years; humility was never a term they used to describe him.

One of my blogs a few weeks ago was bit of science fiction about how useful it would be to make a synthetic microbe in the laboratory. A centerpiece of that story was based on the announcement of Syn1.0, the Venter Institute’s first synthetic cell, announced five years ago. At that time it seemed like it might only be a few more years until we had synthetic genomes and cells on demand. With the challenges associated with producing Syn3.0 that time horizon has now expanded out, probably by quite a bit. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. It’s going to take awhile to figure out what these 145 genes are doing. In the mean time, I hope we don’t forget this important lesson in humility.

David Emerson

About David Emerson

David Emerson is a professional scientist at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences who studies bacteria that live literally between a rock and a hard place. The views expressed here are his alone.