February 15, 2010

When Pork Yields Discovery

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With the Great Recession still looming over our economy, bipartisanship brewing within Congress and President Obama recently submitting his $3.8 trillion budget, the political vitriol against useless federal spending has been on the rise. These challenges to pork barrel projects has culminated in a recent report written by Senators Tom Coburn and John McCain highlighting the 100 most useless federally-funded projects.

The report intends to reveal the current administration’s fiscal irresponsibility, citing examples such as a study on cooperation through bird-watching, a grant that funds a fossil search in Argentina and funding for research on climate conditions in Iceland during the Ice Age. Although a few cases named in the report may deserve backlash from conservatives, many of them do not. Let’s consider three past examples of ostensibly trivial, impractical and even absurd projects that have contributed — and I say this without any sort of exaggeration — to the progress of mankind.

In the 1960s, the National Science Foundation decided to award Thomas Brock with a modest grant to study bacteria that lived in the hot springs of Yellow Stone National Park. Essentially, Brock would collect little vials of water at various locations in hopes of finding new species, meticulously working his way upstream.

At first glance, this project seemed, frankly, pointless: The 1960s was a time of political turmoil and to put efforts into studying microscopic bacteria that live in hot springs is preposterous. But Thomas Brock persisted with his passion, finally stumbling upon the bacteria Thermus aquaticus that had the unusual ability to survive in extremely high temperatures, sometimes up to 175º F, a temperature that is unheard of for organisms. This ability gave way to the modern version of polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a DNA amplification technique which required a hardy enzyme within Thermus aquaticus.

Today, PCR has become so universal and integral to molecular biology that it can be found in almost all laboratories, from those trying to prove the innocence of a suspected killer through DNA testing, to those confirming the presence of genetic defects in unborn infants.

A more recent example comes from a Tokyo study examining a fungus common to undergraduate biology labs, Physarum polycephalum. This fungus’ eye-catching feature is its outstretched pseudopods, which randomly grow in all directions. However, scientists in Tokyo have discovered that its limb growth is not random; in fact, the appendages of Physarum are carefully coordinated to reach nutrients in the most efficient way.

And to what revolution has this discovery lead? As it turns out, Tokyo scientists were able to almost perfectly superimpose an image of Physarum over the Tokyo subway system, proving indeed that the Tokyo subway system is the most efficient way from origin to destination and may have laid the groundwork for future public transportation models that provide maximum utility from minimum costs—both environmental and fiscal.

The last example lies dear and close to Cornell, as it comes directly from Cornell’s Neurobiology and Behavior department. The lab of Dr. Paul Sherman has been studying the microscopic bdelloid, an oddball in the world of microscopic organisms that has been receiving attention from the scientific world after its debut on the cover of the January issue of Science. The study of this small organism may have unexpectedly answered one of our most bedeviling philosophical questions: What is the need for sex? Despite all speculations, it was not until that now that we have concrete evidence that partially answers this fundamental question.

It seems that the bdelloid’s ability to disperse quickly from predators frees it from the need to swap genes (i.e. sexually reproduce), which allows sexual reproducing organisms to adapt to biological and environmental challenges. Their experiment sheds light on our ancestral sexual behaviors, giving us a glimpse into the reasons for our sexual urges that are so commonly seen in Collegetown on weekend nights. And with sex being a motivator in much of human behavior, Dr. Sherman’s lab has partially answered a mystery that has long beleaguered the minds of evolutionary and behavioral scientists.

These three examples, if known by McCain and Coburn at the time of the report’s publication, would have been deemed superfluous and complete nonsense. But fortunately for us, these scientists pursued their research and taught us that more common than not, the results of research land far from their humble beginnings. From thermal hot springs to PCR, fungi to public transportation and rotifers to sexual reproduction, we see a clear pattern that the subject of study is almost irrelevant to its implications. Regardless of how esoteric and narrow a research subject may appear initially, it holds vast applications beneath the layers of scientific jargon and complex concepts.

These three examples have also taught us that small projects should be supported, even expanded. McCain and Coburn are correct to curtail useless federal spending, but these projects should not be the targets of their political assail. These elementary experiments, some of which currently take place at Cornell, form the bedrock of science and provide the fundamental knowledge that future studies rely upon.

Most importantly, these three examples have taught us that it is not motivation for financial profit that creates a scientific revolution, but pure, unadulterated curiosity. This last lesson has been glossed over in a research field now dominated by a never-ending competition for grant money. Yet it is clear that our researchers were not hoping to find a panacea for our medical maladies or our environmental dilemmas for economic profit.

But unless our government learns these lessons from our scientists, our long history of scientific innovation will come to a standstill. After all, it is the compass of curiosity that points to discoveries. 

Steven Zhang is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at szhang@cornellsun.com. The Bigger Picture appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Steven Zhang