Proposing a new vision of life
Advances in natural science have always proposed a new world view, as when Galileo overturned the Ptolemaic theory with the Copernican theory and when Darwin demonstrated the history of life with the theory of evolution. Prof. Takashi GOJOBORI, Vice Director of the NIG, believes that what is most important in basic research is proposing a new world vision to society. This year, the NIG celebrates its 60th anniversary of its establishment as an international genetic research center in Japan. At the NIG, seeds of new world vision are being nurtured against the backdrop of rapid developments in genetics.
- Together with the history of genetics
- The history of genetics is said to have begun in the age of Hippocrates in 400 B.C. with the question of humanity: why do a parent and a child look like each other? Since the late 1800s, repeated observations and experiments brought about new findings leading gradually to DNA as the basis of life: from Mendel’s genes to Morgan’s chromosomes and Avery’s DNA as the genetic material. In 1949, when various hypotheses on DNA were being discussed around the world and genetics began to make rapid progress, the National Institute of Genetics was founded in Mishima City, Shizuoka Prefecture at the foot of Mt. Fuji. In its free atmosphere free from competition among academic cliques, the NIG promoted research on five tracks: Molecular Genetics, Cellular Genetics, Developmental Genetics, Population Genetics and Integrated Genetics, following the hierarchy of life: molecular functions of DNA and proteins determining the roles played by cells, which together form tissue and then an individual, leading to a population of individuals, and populations forming an ecosystem through their interactions. Dr. Gojobori says, “In research at any level, genetics is at the heart. At the NIG, discussions by researchers on different tracks enable to confirm hierarchical interrelations.”
- Joy of discovering something completely new
- Dr. Gojobori encountered population genetics when he was in the master’s program at Kyushu University, a few years after Dr. Motoo Kimura proposed his “neutral theory of molecular evolution” in 1968. He was fascinated by the methodology of the discipline in which mathematics and statistics were employed to explain the process of evolution and logically understand phenomena of life. After obtaining his doctorate, he moved to the United States to work under Dr. Masatoshi Nei, who was among the first scientists to construct a mathematical model to apply to the relationship between DNA sequences and biological evolution and developed the method of systematic analysis most frequently used in the world. “He made me rewrite the first paper I wrote under his instruction 17 times. It was very tough in those days, but I also discovered the joy of solving Nature’s problems whose answers were yet totally unknown.” During those 30 years, as he developed his career as a researcher, always fascinated with basic research, the importance of DNA sequence continued to grow. Competition for deciphering the genomes of various organisms became fierce, and sequencing equipment was developed. DNA sequencing, which cost about 60 billion yen and required 15 years in the Human Genome Project, is now possible within several months. In the future, it is said, the process is likely shortened to several minutes and at about 100,000 yen. Nevertheless, even with genomic sequences and accumulated information on cell functions, individual phenotypes and other phenomena, numerous questions still remain unanswered: how gene-derived proteins interact with other proteins or genes; in the network of such interactions, how a modified factor affects the overall network to change cells, tissues and individuals. “We will finally understand life for the first time when molecules, cells, tissues and individuals and ecosystems are all linked as one in our understanding. We are yet to begin to truly understand life through genomic information and propose a new vision of life,” says Dr. Gojobori.
- From Mishima to the rest of the world
- Questioned how he found the current trend in which basic research was giving way to applied research, his voice took on a passionate tone: “Dr. Masatoshi Koshiba, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics, did not hesitate to say that his research would be useless in 200 years’ time. But such research has a role powerful enough to change humanity’s fate.” What then is necessary for scientists to play such a role? “As research is increasingly accelerated, I think it’s necessary to share each other’s vision of how science can serve people’s wellbeing and how we should influence the world through science,” replied Dr. Gojobori looking ahead.
- As a center for joint research, resource sharing and human resource development in Japan, the NIG welcomes a variety of researchers from around the world. It has an ideal environment where scientists can discuss their visions of science, share ideas about phenomena of life and construct a new world vision together. At the NIG, researchers who teach embrace the wisdom of a Zen proverb that says that for a baby bird to be hatched, the parent bird must also pick at the egg at the same time. They believe that the relationship between teachers and students should be like this and that a new world vision should be constructed in collaboration between generations. “Young people have so many possibilities. I want them to persevere until they find something unique to themselves,” says Dr. Gojobori. Something new is sure to come about from inter-generational and interdisciplinary innovations at this research center rich in diversity.
- (Interviewed by Leave a nest Co.,Ltd in 2009)