Best of the noughties

October 19, 2009 • 5:40 am

by Matthew Cobb

Jerry suggested I post the following piece as a signing-off for my current stint as co-guest blogger.

The British media has started to fill its pages and programmes with retrospective pieces on the last decade – the noughties, as media types (but nobody else) calls them. For example, The Guardian carried this set of articles this weekend. Amongst the predictably true stuff about Google, iPods and 9/11, and the parochial British obsession with z-list celebrities,  there was a brief piece about the key scientific discoveries of the noughties. So this was my question to Jerry:

What were the three most important biological discoveries of the noughties?

My list would be: Homo floresiensis (aka The Hobbit),  the Human Genome (even though that’s not really a discovery, but an inevitable application of a technique) and, in an area I’m particularly familiar with, the discovery and continual re-discovery of insect olfactory receptors.

In 2000, three groups finally described insect olfactory receptors. The vertebrate equivalents had been isolated in 1991 by Linda Buck and Richard Axel, who went on to win the Nobel Prize in 2004. The gap in time was surprising, and was initially put down to the fact that, even in closely related species, olfactory receptors evolve extremely quickly, so looking for genetic sequences in insect genomes that were similar to vertebrate olfactory receptors was a tricky business.

But it soon turned out that things were even more complicated. In 2006, Richard Benton, a post-doctoral researcher in Leslie Vosshall’s lab in Rockefeller, showed that in fact insect olfactory receptors are completely different from their vertebrate equivalents. They are literally upside down – the bits that people thought were outside the cell, interacting with smells, turned out to be inside, connected to the machinery that makes the neuron fire.

Furthermore, Vosshall’s group showed that these receptors only worked if they had a co-factor, which is incredibly highly conserved in insect species. You can take the gene from a moth and stick it in a mutant fly, and the fly will smell again, even though lepidoptera and diptera are separated by about 200 million years of evolution.

Not content with making one stunning discovery, Benton and Vosshall made another at the beginning of the year. Shortly before leaving Rockefeller to set up a new group in Lausanne, Switzerland, Benton discovered a completely new class of olfactory receptor in insects, which works in a completely different way from previously-identified insect receptors and has a completely separate evolution.

In unpublished work his lab presented last week at a meeting I attended in Switzerland, he shows that this class of receptor is common to all studied protostomes (essentially the invertebrates, minus the sea urchins and some worms), but is absent from all deuterostomes (all other animals). You can track the path of evolution by the way that animals smell the outside world, and these ways are turning out to be incredibly rich and complex.

Benton himself is not only a very pleasant and incredibly modest young man (with not much to be modest about!), he is someone who having made some fundamental discoveries in cutting edge molecular neurobiology, recognises the fundamental importance of putting those findings into an evolutionary and ecological context. As Theodosius Dobzhansky put it, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”.

You can read more about Benton’s work in this prize-winning essay, recently published in Science, in an open access section.

So – what would the readers of this blog (and Jerry) think were the three most important findings in biology in the noughties?

15 thoughts on “Best of the noughties

  1. 1. MicroRNA gene regulation (I know the first genes were found in the early 90s but it took ten years before we worked out what was happening in vertebrates.
    2. Copy number variations. The frequency of these is far beyond what was expected and throws open an important window on the process of gene duplication and loss.
    3. The Genome project.
    I like the idea of Homo floresienses but I’m still waiting for some DNA to really make the case.

    1. I put the Genome because I decided that the microRNA (aka RNAi) discovery (but not application) was pre-noughties. So if you can have it, I withdraw the genome and have RNAi too! I reckon the morphology on the hobbit nails it, but I know Jerry also thinks we need more info.

    2. Meh, I have to say that current interest copy number POLYMORPHISMS (oh how I detest the use of the term “CNV”) is pretty overblown.

      We used to gather twigs and fallen branches for our fires, because the only tools we had were our hands (visible markers). Then we gathered small trees we felled with our stone axes (allozymes). Then we got nifty metal saws (manual Maxam Gilbert sequencing for DNA polymorphisms) so we could take down pretty big trees.

      Anyway, CNPs are all the rage these days because we’ve got industrial strength logging equipment (microarrays, Illumina/SOLiD sequencing). Sooner or later, when assembling full genomes de novo becomes routine, we’ll be yammering on about how important inversions and translocations are, as if that were a new fangled idea.

      Of course, for all of those mutations, we’ve been talking about them for years, but when it goes “high throughput”, suddenly it becomes “interesting”. Fisher was talking about duplications in 1935, Ohno in the 60s and 70s, and tons of active researchers were publishing on the topic in the 80s and 90s.

      Oh, and one more thing. Get off my lawn! 😛


  2. Not being a biologist, I sit this one out and look at the interesting scenery.

    I have one question though. Why would one need DNA to make “the case”?

    I can understand if the criteria for, say, identification is fluid and contingent, as biology is. OTOH special criteria are suspect, “moving goalsposts”, “slippery slopes” and all that jazz.

    Are you saying that the methods for identification in such cases are developed together with making the observations, in much the same way that they are done when interplanetary probes are studying unique planets with unique instruments? But still, they got a lot of bones here, didn’t they?

    I’m confused. :-/

    1. The DNA in this particular case is interesting to me because we seem to have a situation where a close relative of humans lived within the time-frame of DNA chemical survivability. We already have neanderthal DNA to compare and the fact that we might be able to examine an even more distantly related homonid at the genetic level is incredibly tantalizing.

    2. Because extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. H. floresiensis just really, really doesn’t fit with what we thought we knew about hominid quaternary evolution, and unfortunately the one skull we have is in pretty crappy condition. So some DNA would be great, or at least another skull. A dry one!

  3. I’m tempted to nominated the 2004(?) paper about human/chimp chromosome #2 homology. Although I think it some of the related pubs pre-dated the noughties, the novel discovery of that paper was the identification of telomeric regions in the middle of the chromosome showing exactly where the fusion took place, right?

  4. I would personally nominate the University of Manchester team who created ribonucleotides in a lab, thereby showing how life on this planet most likely began; just a few simple molecules and some radiation. For too long the forces against science have used the beginning of life as their knockout punch… no longer. Dogmatic, superstitious fools can continue to bleet on about how we don’t know and only their (insert fictitious ‘holy’ book here) has the answers to life’s beginnings, but this is one of those answers that I think will interest more people in science.

    No Gods, No Masters

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