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Biology can’t run on genes alone

UC DAVIS (US) — Don’t lose the organism in the excitement over its genes, say biologists, who caution against straying too far from the actual plants, animals, and microorganisms.

The team suggests that decades of focus on genes have led the scientific community away from a balanced exploration of the organisms that those genes define.

In an article appearing this week in the journal BioScience, the researchers assert that genetic variation alone does not adequately explain the intricate variations in the physiology and behavior of complex organisms.

They propose a renewed emphasis on studying individual organisms in the context of specific environments, considering in greater depth the unique environmental exposures and experiences over the course of these organisms’ lives.

“Biology’s strong focus on genes during the past 50 years has generated a solid foundation for studying the mechanisms that determine the phenotype—the structure and function—of living organisms,” says Dietmar Kueltz, a professor of physiological genomics in the University of California, Davis department of animal science.

He notes that despite the wide-ranging practical implications, little is known about how such mechanisms are influenced by the unique lifelong sequence of environmental exposures experienced by individuals.

For instance, individuals’ disease susceptibility, stress resilience, coping ability, and other important performance traits, as well as complex behavioral patterns, decision making, and human psychology are not only determined by genes but also greatly influenced by prior exposures, learning and life-history experiences.

“It is critical that we now emphasize more strongly the complementation of gene-oriented approaches with a renewed focus on the organismal phenotypes in the context of specific environments and life histories, in order to better understand and explain the physiology and behavior of such complex organisms,” Kueltz says.

Shifting focus

Kueltz and his colleagues maintain that during the past several decades, biological research has moved away from the organism in two gene-focused directions: inward, toward the world of cellular and molecular biology, and outward, toward the broad-scale evolutionary issues of population and quantitative genetics.

“These two movements resulted in many monumental discoveries and advances that now define modern biology,” Kueltz says. “The challenge now is to make the most of the vast insights from those movements and develop a deeper understanding of how, for example, variations in individual physiological and behavioral traits influence ecological and evolutionary processes.”

He and his colleagues advise that a modern research emphasis on organismal phenotypes will require cross-fertilization and integration of traditionally disparate fields of biology, including developmental biology, physiology, morphology, behavioral biology, neuroscience, ecology, and evolutionary biology.

They propose that improved tracking technologies are needed to record life-history exposures and experiences of complex organisms, as well as the environmental variables in their natural habitats at proper resolution.

Furthermore, they call for accelerated development of more powerful and widely accessible high-throughput tools for elucidating the structure and function of organisms, just as high-throughput technology was created for comprehensive studies of genetic blueprints.

“There are promising developments under way in all of these areas,” Kueltz says. “We look forward to the advances in the biology of complex organisms that will be achieved when efforts in these technological and organizational areas are intensified.”

The BioScience article represents the analyses and discussions from a 2011 workshop in Arlington, Virginia, on the future of organismal biology, supported by the National Science Foundation.

Co-authors of the study contributed from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; University of Massachusetts, Amherst; University of Wisconsin, Madison; University of Texas, Austin; McGill University; Harvard University; University of Tennessee, Knoxville; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; University of California, Los Angeles; Michigan State University; University of Toronto; Stanford University; and San Francisco State University.

Source: UC Davis

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  1. Colin Charles

    The inter mutability and apparent interconnect between various levels of research was a given to reveal heightened understanding, particularly in urban geography and ecology. I was enlightened by the revelation that while there were similarities across the scale of study, each particular level exhibited certain traits that didn’t necessarily directly transfer to the others. What happened at the micro level might not exhibit in the same manner at the meso and macro levels, even though the entity was part/s of a whole!

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