Sunday, December 16, 2012

How to understand biology

Lately, I've been wondering whether creating a complete understanding of biology is hopeless given the complexity involved.  Maybe it's like predicting the weather or something--just too many variables and too many unknowns.  Often you hear the analogy that the way we try to understand biology today is like trying to understand how a clock works by throwing it at the wall and looking at the pieces.  I think there is a fundamental truth to that.  Lately, in my talks, I've been using the analogy of grinding up an iPhone into a pile of dust, and then trying to understand how the iPhone works by considering the elemental makeup of that pile of dust.  That's sort of like what we do now.  We grind up a bunch of cells and see what genes are up and down in comparing one "pile of dust" to another.  I think it can be hard to gain real mechanistic insight from that, or at least it seems that it will be hard to really understand how a cell works that way.  Hmm.  Is there a point when we'll actually get there?

Which leads me to a thought.  Maybe it is hopeless to actually figure out how an iPhone works.  But maybe we don't need to.  Take reprogramming of stem cells.  In that case, we don't need to know exactly what the cell does with those reprogramming factors, we just know that they can reprogram the cell.  It's sort of like saying, "Well, someone gave me this iPhone, and I have no idea how it works (having ground a couple of them up), but at the very least, it seems like if I push these particular buttons, then I can somehow get it to call my mom".  So we've gained some higher level understanding of how the system works, enough to bend it to our will occasionally.  That seems more feasible.  Maybe.  I hope.