"The Contradictions Are What Makes Research So Fascinating”

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Professor Bastiaens, biology, the study of life, has made tremendous progress in recent decades. In conjunction with advances in research methods, it has delved ever deeper into the nanocosmos of cells. Will biologists soon find out what life actually is?


Bastiaens: I don’t think biology will succeed in doing this alone. At first glance, the question “What is life?” appears to be a classic domain of biology. However, the culture of biology is traditionally observant: Biologists observe things, i.e. animals, plants, cells, cell organelles, proteins or the genetic material DNA and describe what they see. And of course, we now know that DNA contains blueprints for all proteins of the respective organism. But what constitutes life is something else.


What is it then?

Life consists almost entirely of processes. Of course life also depends on matter. More precisely, life is a special state of matter – matter which needs energy to sustain itself and to reproduce itself, which organizes and regulates itself. Living organisms are also able to register the chemical and physical changes in their environment, which means they can perceive certain stimuli and process information. Biology is not sufficient to elucidate and understand these processes. For this, you need other disciplines.


What other disciplines are you thinking of?

Physics, but also economics – and mathematics. In fact, it was a British mathematician who already in the 1950s developed pioneering theories and models to describe the structure and dynamics of living systems and thus achieved groundbreaking work in this field, namely Alan Turing.


Alan Turing? You mean the man who during World War II was instrumental in decrypting German radio messages that had been encoded by the Enigma machine and whose tragic story was told in the movie “The Imitation Game”?

Yes, that Alan Turing. Most people only know the part of his life that was made into a movie. But Turing was a versatile genius. He not only cracked the Enigma and created a large part of the theoretical basis for modern computer and information technology. He also focused on the chemical and physical principles underlying central processes in biology. His article “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis”, published in 1952, was a milestone and is still important for our work. [1]


What – in a nutshell – is this article about?

In this article, Turing described a mechanism for the first time, how so-called reaction diffusion systems can spontaneously produce spatial patterns and thus how from a single fertilized cell a whole organism can develop. This process, referred to as the Turing mechanism, still forms the basis of many chemical-biological morphogenesis theories.


What conclusions can be drawn from this for researchers today?

There are several. Today some theories in biology are invalid that only decades ago were once considered correct. For example, the notion that a certain external stimulus in a particular type of cell always has the same effect. We now know that this model is far too simplistic. In reality, a specific signal in one and the same kind of cell can have quite different effects, depending on the current internal state of the cell and the processes which have previously taken place within it. The same applies to individual proteins. What a protein does in a cell depends largely on the context, that is, on the milieu that prevails in the cell and on the molecules that surround this protein.


Why is it so important to understand these relationships?

Take cancer research as an example. For many years we have known that malignant tumors are caused by mutations in specific genes. One of the most common – likewise long known – is the so-called Ras gene. It is mutated in about every third tumor. The associated altered protein ensures that the cell constantly receives the signal to divide. What would be more pertinent than to develop an active agent that targets this cancer protein and blocks its activity? Well, actually this was in fact attempted for many decades, but without success. This shows that if we want to be able to treat tumors successfully, we must develop quite different strategies. One of our goals is therefore to find specific switches in the molecular regulation of the cell. Our hypothesis is that by intervening there, the chances are good that this will have a great effect.


But how do you manage to analyze such interactions in the living cells and discover the underlying regulatory mechanisms?

That is in fact not very easy. But we are well positioned for two reasons. First, the Max Planck Society offers researchers excellent conditions. We have great freedom in selecting and designing our projects, and here in Dortmund we have the opportunity to work with the best techniques available. For example, with special state-of-the-art fluorescent microscopes that enable us to precisely localize single molecules in living cells and to record their activity, movement and interactions. However, at least as important is a new way of thinking.  


What do you mean by this?

I think we need to foster a new generation of scientists. Researchers who are not only interested in their own field, but also in other foreign disciplines such as economics. From this a lot can be learned. Companies, for example, are in some ways also systems that maintain themselves like every living organism. A precondition for conducting excellent research, however, is the right attitude and mindset. Science thrives from continually proposing hypotheses and verifying the validity of these hypotheses through experiments. This is a continual process of recursion, a back and forth of questions and answers. Scientists must be able to cope with this process because experiments often produce conflicting results. This is the point where many people give up – and precisely the point where science becomes exciting!

[1] The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis. In: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, series B. Vol. 237, no. 641, 1952, pp. 37–72, :doi: 10.1098/rstb.1952.0012


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