Upcoming research topics
February 18, 2005 8:59 PM   Subscribe

What are some up-and-coming topics in biological research, and who's investigating them?

It seems that a lot of scientists are conducting research with tried and true methods, seeking to fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle whose general shape is already known. Important work, of course, but not necessarily revolutionary in the Einstein/Watson&Crick/etc. sense.

What I want to know is, who's looking for new puzzles, and what are they?
posted by greatgefilte to Science & Nature (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
posted by delmoi at 9:10 PM on February 18, 2005

Your question doesn't seem focused or specific enough.

Embryonic stem cell research, reproductive cloning, neuroimaging and modeling are the stock answers.
posted by Gyan at 9:11 PM on February 18, 2005

Can you tell us any more about what you think is boring? What are tye 'tried and true' methods that you don't think are intresting, so that we don't just repeat them to you?

I think the most intresting topics in biology are figuring out how a cell (in particular, a human cell) regulates itself, how it builds itself, etc. Now, we know a lot about that now but there's a lot to be done, and all of that requires tried and true methods.
posted by delmoi at 9:19 PM on February 18, 2005

I think the "revolution" in biotech comes from informatics and robotics being able to automate experiments and analysis on a much larger scale. We can now start to look at organisms in a holistic, systemic sense. One term is experimentation in silico.

Proteomics seems to be a successor to genomics. Where genomic mapping gives us the layout of genes in an organism, proteomics creates a map of protein activity and interactions for an organism. This is the nuts and bolts stuff of how cells operate in total. Dr. Philip Rea and Dr. Michael Hippler are two professors in my department who work in this field.

Microarrays are a revolutionary technique that help complement genomics, in the sense of doing hundreds of thousands of experiments in one go, on one tissue "platform", telling us what genes are highly expressed and which get underexpressed, and at what times or under what conditions. This is stuff that wasn't done a few years ago. Dr. Don Baldwin coordinates microarray usage for multiple research organisations within my university.

Xenobiology may become more of an interesting field as we do more space exploration. Some researchers are attempting to recreate chemical environments in vivo to try to evolve life with non-carbon-based chemistries. Others use computers to create novel evolving information systems from simple rules.
posted by AlexReynolds at 9:26 PM on February 18, 2005

RNA interference has been pretty groundbreaking.

A lot of very cool stuff on innate immunity to microorganisms and viruses has also been going on in the past few years.

Systems biology (a sort of anti-reductionist approach) is a happening area.

Many people are working in each of these areas.
posted by shoos at 9:52 PM on February 18, 2005

delmoi, gyan:

The stock answers are things we're doing now, things making the news, things a lot of people are investigating. I'd like to know what the next big objects of study will be, things that perhaps only a few people are studying now -- I think Alex and shoos are on the right track.
posted by greatgefilte at 10:01 PM on February 18, 2005

Your question doesn't seem focused or specific enough.

I second that, sensing some purpose or other on your end. Just share it with us and give us an idea how to narrow this incredibly vague question down something that will suit your needs.
posted by scarabic at 10:13 PM on February 18, 2005

things making the news, things a lot of people are investigating

A few example of these "old news" items would help us. For one thing, we have no idea how plugged in you are. If you work for a biotech firm, there's stuff that would be 10-years-old to you that has never "made the news" in a significant way.

Please draw the line.
posted by scarabic at 10:14 PM on February 18, 2005

greatgefilte: AlexReynolds's response reflects what's "tired and true" to me. It's certanly the kind of thing I've been hearing a lot about, one of my friends is working on a project using machine learning algorithms to figure out what genes cause other genes to be expressed using the kind of data Alex talked about.

But I've only really been plugged in for about a year or so, so maybe my perspective is a little skewed.
posted by delmoi at 10:32 PM on February 18, 2005

I'd tend to agree with delmoi; microarrays and proteomics are pretty recent, but use of microarrays has become relatively widespread, and proteomics is well on the way to becoming what the study of the genome was five or ten years ago. shoos seems to be a bit closer to me - systems biology is still smaller and less well-known, and the uses of RNAi are still being discovered. If I were to point out one of the bigger "up-and-coming topics in biological research", however, I think I'd point towards synthetic biology, for starters

[That last link might be most useful, as it's a basic FAQ, including links to some of the other pages as well as a Scientific American article on the topic. I suppose I should add a caveat not unlike delmoi... I've been connected to some of the synthetic biology stuff, which might make my perspective a little skewed.]
posted by ubersturm at 12:53 AM on February 19, 2005

Sorry that my question was so vague, I guess it made a bit more sense in my head.

In my mind, traditional, puzzle-filling science refers to things like 'elucidating the role of gene x in embryonic development' or 'characterizing the effect of chemical y on brain function' or even 'tinkering with stem cells to make them do what we want.'

I guess a better way to phrase the question would be, what areas of biology are still in their embryonic phase? RNA interference is a good example, but I think it's well on its way to becoming a mainstream area of research. What topics are still a bit further back in the pipeline?

posted by greatgefilte at 11:51 AM on February 19, 2005

What topics are still a bit further back in the pipeline?

Protein folding is still an unsolved problem, and probably will be for another decade or two.

De novo synthesis of viruses and larger organisms?
posted by AlexReynolds at 1:20 PM on February 19, 2005

My favorite feild of work being done right now I know of from a talk given by Michael LaBarbera. It is molecular evolution/phylogeny, basically looking out at the world and seeing that it includes parts/organelles from the past, and that determines the organization of life. Phylogeny used to be organised by complexity, descent by characteristics, where now it is done on the molecular level. Therefore, the sister group to animals are fungi. Somewhere there is also a way that this is applied to the evolution of languages as well.

This isn't my field and it is almost a year ago that I heard this talk, but yea, molecular evolution is amazing. It is a conceptual change in biology, a change in the way life is thought about. Once you change who is related to whom, those relationships, everything changes.

Also interesting is research into how what used to be thought of as DNA "junk" is now understood to be intrinsically linked with how genes function. No one knows how, though.
posted by scazza at 8:12 PM on February 19, 2005

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