I have studied many things in my long career in biological research. Most of my work was on applied biology. I worked, published papers, and got grants in environmental health sciences, toxicology, cancer research, molecular epidemiology, population genetics, gene-environment interactions, genetic susceptibility, metabolic gene polymorphisms, and others. I achieved a brief and modest degree of recognition in the field of molecular carcinogenesis in the early 1990s, and again in the field of human genetic susceptibility to environmental disease in the 2000s.
But during this entire 40-year career in research (this year marks the 40th anniversary of my Ph.D. in Biochemistry), I was always most interested in something quite different: theoretical biology.
I was told by a senior researcher once that theoretical biology is an oxymoron. Biologists don’t do theory. There is a Journal of Theoretical Biology, in which I have published a few articles, but the journal has always had a low citation index (it’s now about 2, but used to be below 1), and my papers there are among the least cited of any of my papers.
My favorite paper, the one I think is the best paper I ever published, is called
Fractal Properties of the Human Genome. J. Theor. Biol. 230:251-260, 2004. This paper has been cited 20 times, which isn’t bad, but not great for a 12-year old paper. The first two or three years after it was published, it got no citations at all. I published 7 research papers in 2004, with an average citation count of 48. The fractal paper has the lowest number of citations in the group for that year.
I have blogged on this topic before (see Biology, the Lawless Science). Of course it isn’t news that biologists don’t like theory, nor that they don’t understand the value of theory. And theoretical biology is hard. Many papers in the field are from mathematicians who want to apply their favorite models to biological issues, and their papers are not accessible to ordinary, non-mathematically minded mortals.
But the good news, at least for me, is that some of this anti-theoretical bias in biology might be starting to change. There are some fields, like evolutionary biology, where new models and new theories are emerging, although nothing like a universal law has yet been brought forth.
I have mentioned my own work when I started this blog. I thought it would be a good idea to try to derive some basic laws or principles for the way that gene regulatory networks (GRNs) operate. GRNs have become recognized as potentially key features of evolutionary progress. Such networks can be represented by mathematical arrays or matrices of gene interactions, and should therefore be highly susceptible to theoretical analysis. And many scientists have been working in this area. Andreas Wagner, whose book The Arrival of the Fittest made a big splash in the modern field of extending the evolutionary synthesis beyond neo-Darwinism, bases much of his argument on his findings of how robust regulatory networks can lead to innovations in evolution.
I have also made some modest findings in this field on a simpler level, but they are interesting and I am writing them up for publication in the scientific literature. If and when these papers are accepted I will post some of that work here.
Throughout my career, I have published a lot of findings, results, even some ideas and concepts. But I would be really thrilled to be able to find some kind of fundamental law that can explain any aspect of that marvelous, astounding and absolutely unique thing we call life. We’ll see.