What have been the significant advances in biology since 1993?
May 15, 2009 5:29 PM   Subscribe

What have been the significant advances in biology since 1993?

One of my prized books is the 3rd Edition of Neil A. Campbell's Biology published in 1993. What are the most important things known in the field today that were not known then?

(For extra credit: If Dr. Campbell were still with us to prepare a 2009 edition covering the same ground, what percentage of scientifically new content might it be expected to have?)
posted by Joe Beese to Science & Nature (18 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The full sequencing of the human genome, for one thing.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:47 PM on May 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

- understanding retro-viruses, like AIDS
- stem cells
- human genome
posted by Flood at 5:55 PM on May 15, 2009

RNAi, microRNAs, 454 sequencing. hell high throughput sequencing of any sort really. every 'ome you can think of, proteome, epigenome, kinome. I will now check with Mr Campbell's to see what the state of heterochromatin research was at the time.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 6:11 PM on May 15, 2009

Okay still thinking, GFP. i.e. green fluorescent protein... and all the derivatives. Think of last year's Nobel Prize , also covered here.
Come to think of it, the Nobel Prizes of recent years have been reasonably cutting edge. Andy Fire and Craig Mello won it in 2006 for RNAi. Most of these are new tools, not actually new concepts. stem cells, for example are a very old concept, hematopoetic stem cells are relatively ancient. Their tractability in research is only a recent novelty, helped in large part by the tool sets that have been developed in the last 16 years.
The exception to this "no new concepts" statement is the discovery of miRNAS. The fact that we still don't know what all these funky things do in an endogenous context makes them pretty exciting. Once a definitive, physiological role for miRNAs are found, Gary Ruvkun is getting an early morning call from Stockholm.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 6:27 PM on May 15, 2009

Most of epigenetics, I would think.
posted by Maias at 7:02 PM on May 15, 2009

1996: successful cloning of mammals.

Another big advance of the last 15 years was the discovery of the genetic activation sequence for milk-producing cells in cows, goats, and sheep. Using that, plus controlled retroviruses, genetic engineering has created animals which produce clinically-useful proteins in their milk. And they breed true.

In February the FDA approved a drug called ATryn which is the first drug produced that way. ATryn is created by genetically-engineered goats.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:36 PM on May 15, 2009

(Actually, it's not the first drug produced that way. It's the first drug produced that way which has gained FDA approval.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:39 PM on May 15, 2009

not all at the same level of significance:

fMRI (just on the 92/93 border)
regulatory T cells and molecular markers for the same
high throughput sequencing & associated advances in computational bio
widespread development of antibody therapeutics (e.g. Campath) and rationally-designed small molecules inhibitors (e.g. imatinib)
the back-differentiation of somatic cells into ES-like pluripotency with 3 to 4 defined transcription factors
posted by NucleophilicAttack at 7:50 PM on May 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

That particular form of genetic engineering is particularly radical, but it's not the only kind. Insuline has been produced using genetically modified yeast since 2003.


There's "golden rice". And a lot of other cool stuff going on in research on food crops, such as plants which are much more tolerant of salt. And much better able to survive drought. They're even hopeful that they can make rice (and corn, and wheat) do the same thing that the legumes do, so they can fix their own nitrogen.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:53 PM on May 15, 2009

For the past ten years, the citation index people track the most cited papers, which gives you a rough idea of what was seminal. My library buys access to it; yours may also. If you are more interested memail me.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 8:42 PM on May 15, 2009

Lots of progress in developmental biology. Check out the writings of Sean Carroll.
posted by neuron at 10:34 PM on May 15, 2009

Most of what we know about signal transduction was figured out after 1993. And signal transduction is huge. HUGE, I tell you.

Also, it's worth noting that immunology is moving at a breakneck pace, and has been for a good long while.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 2:28 AM on May 16, 2009

Hmm, let's see. If you're looking for cool stuff, synthetic biology is an entire new discipline. (Check out the biological registry of parts.)
Molecular motors are fun, like kinesin. There are a lot of cool engineered nanotherapeutics out there....

Actually, forget it, almost everything I learned about in my bioengineering degree, actually. The course of study was so new (I was class of '08) that we didn't even have textbooks most of the time - none had been written. We are learning so much new biology it's impossible to sum up.

I wish I could link you to some course websites, because they're full of information, but they require authentication. Instead, here are some lightly-edited class summaries taken from the MIT Course Catalog. Although not all of these subjects are new by any means, all of them have been updated and expanded considerably since 1993. I know it's not exactly what you're looking for, but perhaps it can give you some ideas?

-Biology of cells of higher organisms: structure, function, and biosynthesis of cellular membranes and organelles; cell growth and oncogenic transformation; transport, receptors, and cell signaling; the cytoskeleton, the extracellular matrix, and cell movements.

-(From a lab class listing.) Parts Engineering, which emphasizes protein design and quantitative assessment of protein performance; Systems Engineering, in which students consider genome-wide consequences of genetic perturbations; and Biomaterials Engineering, in which students use biologically-encoded devices to design and build materials.

-Recent progress has resulted in the identification of dozens of genes that, when mutated, promote tumorigenesis. However, it is not yet clear what causes these mutations. Subject analyzes the chemistry of DNA damaging agents, and continues with analysis of the mutagenic and toxic consequences of modifications to DNA structure. The contrasting perspective that normal DNA processing leads to mutations is also presented. The biochemistry and molecular mechanisms of DNA replication, DNA repair, and recombination form the foundation of the subject.

-Sensing and measurement aimed at quantitative molecular/cell/tissue analysis in terms of genetic, biochemical, and biophysical properties. Methods include light and fluorescence microscopies, electronic circuits, and electro-mechanical probes (atomic force microscopy, optical traps, MEMS devices). Application of statistics, probability, signal and noise analysis, and Fourier techniques to experimental data.

-Develops and applies scaling laws and the methods of continuum mechanics to biomechanical phenomena over a range of length scales. Topics include structure of tissues and the molecular basis for macroscopic properties; chemical and electrical effects on mechanical behavior; cell mechanics, motility and adhesion; biomembranes; biomolecular mechanics and molecular motors.

-Provides an in-depth understanding of the state of research in synthetic biology. Critical evaluation of primary research literature covering a range of approaches to the design, modeling and programming of cellular behaviors.

OK I'll stop now...
posted by Cygnet at 5:00 AM on May 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

So much has happened in 15 years: High-throughput, low-cost sequencing. Epigenetics. Systems biology: Microarrays, proteomics, gene networks. Haplotype studies ("HapMap"). RNA interference. Gene therapy. Synthetic biology.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:00 AM on May 16, 2009

Biology is hitting the kind of knee right about now that semiconductors did about 1975. The next 30 years in biology are going to be amazing; we're still in the Z-80 days, and the biological equivalent of the Pentium is still in our future.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:45 AM on May 16, 2009

Wow, this is FASCINATING - great question, and great answers!

Cygnet's answer made me wonder if there was anything over at MIT's Open Courseware, and I found Intro to Biological Engineering, which includes 4 course videos and about a dozen faculty videos. Yay!
posted by kristi at 10:28 AM on May 16, 2009

OpenCourseWare has virtually every Biological Engineering course taught at MIT on it. You can learn TONS!!! Having taken the whole BE curriculum, I can vouch for its awesomeness :)
posted by Cygnet at 10:41 AM on May 16, 2009

A lot of the answers here focus on new technology—sequencing, RNAi, flourescent proteins etc.—rather than the light they have shed on biological concepts and processes, and I'm not sure that's exactly what you're looking for.

Perhaps if you could get your hands on newer editions of the book, and look at the "new to this edition" pages at the beginning, this might more directly answer your question?

eg, from the Seventh edition, the major new or significantly updated topics are:

Systems Biology
miRNAs and siRNAs
Genome evolution
Use of molecular systematics in phylogenetic studies
Cooperative relationships between prokaryotes
Lots of stuff about vertebrate neurobiology
Behavioural ecology

Perhaps others with other editions to hand could chime in?

As a working biologist who was an undergraduate in the early 1990s, the big advances I would mention are:
Elucidation of major signaling pathways (Notch, Wnt, Ras, Hh, BMP etc) and their roles in development and cancer.
Appreciation that RNA is more interesting than we thought back then: miRNAs, siRNA, alternate splicing and so much more.
Whole genome sequencing and implications for evolutionary biology, systems biology etc.
...but I'm biased as these are the things that directly affect my work.
posted by nowonmai at 12:45 PM on May 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

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