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Out of Order: Undaunted
January 2017
by Randall C Willis  |  Email the author
SHARING OPTIONS:

Your muscles twitch as you wait for the starter’s pistol, a line of runners to either side. A sudden blast and your legs explode from the blocks as you begin the 100-meter dash. Arms pump, legs push and slowly you raise your head—only to see a hurdle.
 
On instinct, your leg lifts higher and you fly over the obstacle, only to see another and then another. Your 100-meter dash is now a 400-meter hurdles competition.
 
Quickly, you get the rhythm of stride, stride, leap…only to see a high-jump bar ahead…followed by a long-jump pit…after which are a discus waiting to be thrown, javelin hurled and hammer tossed…simultaneously.
 
Such, it would seem, is the lot of anyone involved in scientific research and particularly in research around human health and disease.
 
No sooner do we shine a light on a subject, hoping to elucidate its form and/or its function, than we are presented with a never-ending litany of complications and elaborations that we simply could not have imagined moments earlier.
 
For me, this challenge presents itself every time I crack into a new Special Report, including the one in this issue.
 
The mapping and sequencing of the human genome was set to tell us all of the component parts that establish who we are as a species and individuals. But immediately upon achieving this parts list, we discovered that it told us little or nothing about shape, texture, flexibility. Those more subtle characteristics came down to other scientific perspectives such as epigenetics, transcriptomics and alternate splicing, and computational modeling.
 
Similarly, subtleties in the modifications that routinely decorate the protein machinery or lipid-packaged compartments of cells challenge what appears to be at first blush a simple characterization experiment where even the choice of analytical technique can have significant impact on what we will find and therefore think (see “Sweetening the pot” in the July 2016 issue of DDNews).
 
How do you design an all-encompassing experiment when you don’t have the first clue about what you don’t know?
 
For those working in the cancer sphere, the challenges of understanding cellular and tumor dynamics at both the macro- and micro-levels, let alone treating patients, can stop you in your tracks. In a situation of Darwinian evolution run amok, the ever-shifting landscape encapsulated by cancer cell heterogeneity incapacitates pretty much every treatment before its job is done (see “An ever-evolving picture” in the June 2016 issue of DDNews).
 
And as I prepared for this issue’s Special Report on Microbiomics (starting on page 19), I am stunned by what I am only starting to understand. That our individual existence as humans may only be 10 percent of what we see in the mirror—and that perhaps only 1 percent of our personal ecological genome is a human genome—boggles the mind and calls into question what it is to be human.
 
Thank goodness that I am not a quantum physicist, as a friend recently pointed out, or I might have to deal with the concept that almost 100 percent of solid matter is empty space. I am the void I seek to understand.
 
All this to say thank you to everyone who works in scientific and medical research, whether at the bench or in allied pursuits, for even showing up to work.
 
Every day, you approach the yawning void of ignorance and chip away at your small corner, only to discover that the void is significantly larger than anyone imagined. Having spent time at the lab bench, I get that it can feel like every discovery moves you further from your goal rather than closer to it.
 
And yet, you persevere.
 
With the new year upon us and as we continue to press into those dark corners, unveiling the hidden wonders (and even terrors) of life, I simply wanted to take a moment to applaud these efforts and to let you know that we understand the monstrous nature of the task ahead, even if not its precise scale.
 
If these pages help you to see your shared purpose in the greater undertaking, if they help you to see that you are not alone as you illuminate your small corner, then we have performed our duty to you and to the community.
 
All the best in the year and years ahead. And again, thank you.

Randall C Willis can be reached by email at willis@ddn-news.com

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