One Lumper or Two

Those who make many species are the 'splitters,' and those who make few are the 'lumpers.' --The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, vol. II. Extending the above analogy from taxonomy to biology, "splitters" have had the best of things recently, generating massive amounts of data on genes and their networks, proteins and their pathways, cascades and cassettes. But unifying this torrent of information into a seamless whole now requires "lumpers,"

By | November 11, 2002

Those who make many species are the 'splitters,' and those who make few are the 'lumpers.'

--The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, vol. II.

Extending the above analogy from taxonomy to biology, "splitters" have had the best of things recently, generating massive amounts of data on genes and their networks, proteins and their pathways, cascades and cassettes. But unifying this torrent of information into a seamless whole now requires "lumpers," integrative scientists.

Two types of lumpers exist. One is the tech whiz, applying engineering sensibilities and computational methods, sans "wet-lab" research. This "human as machine" approach is capturing the imagination of everyone from grad students to the directors of funding agencies.

For the other lumper, the experimental system transcends wet-lab biology: It is hot, twitching, furry, and wet biology; in other words--real animals. This type of integrative science is not faring well. In fact, the dearth of trained, talented people is proving to be a major headache and a problem not solved with a simple prescription.

Its causes are multiple: One is cultural squeamishness. Animal experimentation is widely, sometimes violently, questioned. While most of the population still appreciates the benefits that flow from animal work, few actually view it as a career of choice. Another blow: Many university courses, let alone those in high schools, no longer include animal dissection.

A second concern is the gentle but definite decline in prestige of animal research, induced by a reinforcing spiral of limited funding, a graying research population, the closure/reemphasis of departments, and lack of inspiring new role model researchers. There is also the cruel reality that experiments are long, expensive, and difficult, and that the resulting papers won't appear in the highest-profile journals.

The result: a scarcity of talent that is not only delaying the development of synthesized biology, but is also hamstringing the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, where a great deal of effort and money is spent on in vivo validation and optimization of lead drugs. But, some researchers are retaliating. In the United Kingdom, the Wellcome Trust has adopted an initiative on Integrative Animal and Human Physiology, "to promote research exploring the relationship between genomic information and physiological mechanisms in humans and animals." In the United States, a recent workshop set out to mobilize academic, industrial, and funding interests.1 One apparent move is the reinvention, or at least rebranding, of the field as "integrative and organ systems science," or IOSS. It seems that the term "physiology" carries too many negative connotations.

Other ideas for kickstarting the field include endowed chairs, practical courses, certification of core competence in whole-animal research, and research initiatives, including the development of animal models and noninvasive monitoring techniques such as imaging. Perhaps the biggest inducement will be employment. With a glut of molecular biologists on the market juxtaposed against a scarcity of animal researchers, the smart student will see the opportunities.

But for the time being, wet biology remains a tad arid. As neuropharmacologist Sam Enna memorably phrased it: "Many can genotype but few can phenotype."

--Richard Gallagher, Editor
(rgallagher@the-scientist.com)

1. "The Status and Future of Integrative and Organ Systems Science," organized by the Life Sciences Research Office, Bethesda, Md., October 20-21, 2002.

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