Where do we come from? What is it to be human? Why do we get sick? Why do we die? How does my brain work? Why do I want to study biology?
On Saturday February 28th 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick burst into the Eagle, a public house near the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, where Crick announced that they had discovered the “secret of life”. In deducing the structure of DNA, Watson and Crick laid the foundations for what we now call molecular biology. During the following fifty plus years, biology has moved from the study of the physiology of plants and animals to a deep understanding of the chemical basis of living organisms. As biologists we no longer just study the organisms themselves but we go much further to explain how the molecules and atoms they are made of make them tick.
The motivation for James Watson to work on DNA was to answer the big question, “What is Life?” Their discovery in 1953 answered many questions about the storage of genetic information and its passage from one generation to the next but it posed many more questions. Some of which have been answered while others have hardly been touched.
We now know a gene is a section of DNA acting as an instruction to produce a protein. We know that about 30,000 genes are needed to make a human and since 2000 we have known the structure of the human genome – the blueprint to make a human. But we don’t know why a bacterium needs only 1000 genes yet a human being which is much more complex only needs only 30 times as many. If our closest living relative, the chimpanzee shares 96% of its DNA with us, why is it so different in its physiology, language and social culture? What is the biological basis of emotions, thought and intelligence? Will biology enable us to feed an increasing human population, control climate change, cure cancer and AIDS, correct genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anaemia and solve the world’s energy crisis?
The second half of the twentieth century saw a massive explosion in our understanding of biology, building on the ideas of the great biologists of the past: Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel, Robert Hooke, Louis Pasteur, Rosalind Franklin and many others. Advances in biology in the twenty first century promise to accelerate our understanding of our role in the natural world and find answers to the big questions that still need answering. Can we find a balance between what we want from our planet and what it is capable of providing? Can we improve the life chances of the Earth’s inhabitants, whether by eradicating hunger and famine or by finding cures to the diseases which kill millions each year? What is life and where did it come from?
The big questions are still there. Some have been answered, while new ones have been formed. Biology will play a major role in answering these questions and solving the problems that face humankind. This is why we study biology.