Big Biology

Hugh Pennington

Big Science took off during the Second World War and justified itself with successful ventures such as the Manhattan Project. Physicists have operated on a grand scale ever since. Lavish public funding has enabled them to conduct enormous experiments, each taking years in the planning and requiring hundreds of scientists and machines that cost hundreds of millions. Biology is different. Its most expensive items of equipment – MRI scanners or electron microscopes or DNA sequencers – cost many orders of magnitude less and don’t need enormous engineering teams because they can be bought off the shelf with manufacturers’ guarantees, just like white goods. But the problems that biologists investigate are far, far more complicated than those that remain for physicists. Living organisms have not been rationally designed, but have evolved, and are still evolving. Variability is everywhere; enormously complex interactions between the thousands of different molecules (themselves very complex) in an organism are universal, but rules that reliably predict and explain them are still vanishingly rare. To find answers to their questions in the face of these difficulties, biologists have been forced to become Big Science practitioners as well.

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[*] Eukaryote cells have a nucleus; prokaryote cells don’t.