Post #011: The ones that came before

London, September 30, 2017

Biomedical research has witnessed extraordinary and groundbreaking advancements after World War II (WWII). These advancements have been, primarily, the result of the tedious work and persistence of millions of honest and dedicated scientists, occasionally escorted by luck. It is important to remember that these scientists have contributed not only to the understanding of physiology and pathology, or to the development of new treatments, but also to the development of the increasingly sensitive and efficient enquiry tools employed in biomedical research across these decades.

My current post is not aiming at raising a monument to the biomedical research community, but to share a concern I have developed while browsing through thousands of research articles over the last 16 years [1]: that not long after WWII, this community has managed to abolish its “horror vacui” [2]. Although this term is practically used in order to characterize works of art in which the artists fail to allow for empty surfaces to be unfulfilled with detail, in this concern of mine it is used in order to characterize the urge of scientists to fully-explore aspects of a given physiology or pathology through a certain set of methodologies. The impression I have is that the drive for innovation has led the majority of the post-WWII biomedical scientists to quickly abolish their horror vacui – that is for those that suffered from one in the first place – and has driven biomedical progress in a faster, more targeted manner. In other words, I am of the impression that, as a community, we have managed to develop and adopt novel research tools, before fully-exploring the potential of the older ones, even in cases where the new ones are only complimentary and not superior to the ones that came before.

A fine example of this concern is the use of enzyme activity assays in contemporary neuroscientific research, where the wealth of such methodological approaches developed between 1945 and 1985 has been suddenly abandoned in order to give its place to the – by the time (mid-1980s) – increasingly-available methods that could determine protein, mRNA and DNA levels. The latter were subsequently complemented by the trendy “-omics” era (starting at mid-1990s and dominating neuroscientific progress during the first decade of the 21st century) [3] and, more recently, by the revolutionary CRISPR/Cas9 trend [4], but the assays that provide an estimate of the functional capacity of key brain proteins are, at the same time, in rare use.

Should the price of abandoning our scientific horror vacui, be the abandoning of useful knowledge?


Notes: [1]: since 2001 that I am actively involved in biomedical research; [2]: meaning “the fear of empty space”, which is the equivalent of the Greek term “κενοφοβία” (“kenophobia”); [3]: technologies that provide a universal detection of genes (genomics), mRNA (transcriptomics), proteins (proteomics) and metabolites (metabolomics); [4]: genome-editing technology that allows permanent genetic modification.

Citation: Zarros A. Post #011: The ones that came before. 2017; 30-Sep.