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The DNA of freedom

Pure scientific research ultimately leads to applications that no one can foresee

By Bracha Reger

A US Army forensic scientist handles evidence in a DNA extraction lab
A US Army forensic scientist handles evidence in a DNA extraction lab

The matter of the essence of life preoccupies researchers a lot. The first real progress and the beginning of modern thought on the subject occurred in the middle of the 20th century. In 1944, the renowned physicist Erwin Schrödinger wrote that it is possible to refer to the essence of life in terms of storing biological information and passing it from generation to generation with the help of chromosomes, and that chromosomes are the carriers of the genetic code of information. To understand the essence of life, Schrödinger wrote, the molecular structure of the chromosome must be discovered and the genetic code cracked.

In the same year, researchers Oswald Avery, McLean McCarthy and Colin McCloud showed that the material that makes up the chromosome, DNA, carries the genetic code and is thus responsible for heredity. It is worth noting that despite this finding, without which we would not have reached the insights we have today about the essence of life and heredity, this group of researchers did not win the Nobel Prize because one of the judges did not believe that the discovery was correct.

And today, it is hard to believe that all this happened only 66 years ago.

Since Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA, a group of researchers from Harvard University succeeded in isolating a single gene, cloned Dolly the sheep who had also died in the meantime, and the mapping of the human genome began and ended.

The DNA molecule left the walls of research laboratories and became an integral part of our daily lives. Who would have believed that research on a philosophical question like the question of the essence of life would lead to findings that will be used by human society in many and varied fields.

At first the importance attributed to DNA was in the medical field. Understanding the genetic-molecular basis of diseases was of great importance, and many hoped that it would make it possible to correct genetic defects with the help of DNA changes. Some believe that prenatal genetic testing of hereditary diseases in a fetus can be seen as an important preventive step and that they can lead to a revolution in this field. Indeed, all the modern and advanced technologies based on the mapping of the human genome can bring the expected results, but they also carry a heavy social-ethical price.

Many studies in DNA also deal with the genetic history of humanity. These studies shed light on the differences in different populations, on the origin of the populations and on their migration routes.

One of the fields in which it became clear that the DNA molecule has a central and vital role is the legal field, especially in criminal law. It's hard not to be impressed by how much DNA testing has become a central part of various television programs emphasizing the power of DNA. But even in life, and not only on television, complex and complicated murder cases can be solved with the help of DNA tests.

DNA tests are not only used for conviction, but have also begun to be used as a pathway to freedom. In countries that allow convicted prisoners to access DNA tests, prisoners have been found to have spent years in prison for no wrongdoing. The ability to release prisoners from prison on the basis of DNA testing and thereby do social justice gives very important support from an unexpected direction to the contribution of basic research to society.

It is common today to divide research into basic research and applied research. With the development of advanced technologies, the extensive knowledge accumulated over decades from basic research began to be utilized and turned into applied research. In the field of DNA, this is of course the biotechnological industry. The progress and prosperity of this industry is so exciting that sometimes it seems that investment in the industry is preferred over investment in basic research. Budgets intended for basic research are constantly being cut, and in order to survive researchers are forced to direct their research in practical directions. And so the academic research driven by the curiosity and imagination of the researchers is harmed and the many years of science's ability to promote true innovation is harmed.

The 21st century is indeed called "the century of biotech", and it is expected to bring the biggest revolutions in our lives. But we should not forget the basic studies that sowed the initial seeds. We should not see basic research as a "waste" of resources that allows researchers to do whatever they want. We must not forget that the work of researchers like Schrödinger was completely theoretical, and they led to tremendous technological progress in areas that the original researchers could not have imagined. There will always be surprises and we as a company have to make them possible.

Bracha Reger She is Professor Emeritus of Microbiology and Immunology at the Faculty of Health Sciences at Ben-Gurion University, former Chief Scientist of the Ministry of Health, a member of the Higher Education Council and currently the President of Ort Israel and Chairman of the Ort Academic Council

5 תגובות

  1. Looking for relatives - people who belong to the haplogroup R1B1*. This is a tiny group originating in Eastern Europe - Galicia, Ukraine and Moldova.

  2. I do not agree with the author's assumption that research budgets should also be granted for basic studies because it is impossible to know what will eventually become applied. If this is the argument, critics could argue that a few stories of basic research becoming applied still cannot justify the remaining large percentages of basic research that remain basic without serious application.

    The argument should be different: we are members of a culture, and not everything we do should be measured by practical and material benefit. Each of us is curious to know about everything - from the stars to the atoms that make up our bodies - even without having any application for us. This is the reason for the need to direct resources to basic research, and if by chance an application for research is found - that is already a bonus.

  3. I really don't agree.
    The article does not come to tell you about a new discovery or an explanation of a certain phenomenon. He came to remind us that although the applied research is more fascinating and interesting to us - we must not neglect the theoretical research that made the applied research possible.

    Anyway, I really liked the article

  4. A strange article, which is mainly intended for 12-year-old children who are starting to be interested in biology. The beginning does promise something, with the definition that life is a warehouse whose contents are periodically transferred to other warehouses.

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