I’ve blogged in the past about the changing nature of the life-sciences, and about how today’s graduate students need to be “jacks of all trades.” As I’ve noted, in the past, graduate students were required to use fewer experimental systems, but perhaps to master them more thoroughly. However, the advent of kits and companies galore has radically changed the way we do science.
But more has changed in science in the last 10-20 years than merely having biotech companies simplify techniques by selling standardized “kits” to robotically carry out a wide variety of experiments. No, there have been major and revolutionary advances in scientific technology that have been driving life-sciences forward.
Given that most of us have been in science for a few years (heh, heh), I would like to pose the question as to what you think is the most important technical advance that has driven biomedical science forward in recent years. I am going to list a few possibilities, but please feel free to add your own candidates, as I’m sure I’m going to miss quite a few.
Here are a few techniques that I think have really advanced science:
Going back a few years:
Monoclonal antibody generation–the ability to specifically design a cell line that secretes specific antibodies. Such antibodies are the mainstream of any work involving proteins.
Blotting–the detection of specific proteins on a piece of filter paper with antibodies, dubbed Western Blotting, and the detection of specific sequences of DNA or RNA on filter paper (dubbed Southern and Northern blotting, respectively). As a student, every instructor was eager to explain these techniques ad nauseum in every course offered.
Cloning and molecular biology techniques–the ability to make cDNA constructs that can be used to generate protein factories in bacteria for a variety of purposes, or to express specific proteins in actual cells.
Model organisms–mice or even invertebrates such as flies and worms (or even zebra fish) are generated lacking specific genes or containing flawed ones to determine developmentally and in adult animals what these genes are responsible for.
Silencing RNA (SiRNA)–also known as RNA inhibition (RNAi). This revolutionary technique, barely a decade old, has allowed researchers to study the function of individual proteins in cells by blocking the expression of a specific protein of interest. This has now become the ‘gold standard’ for assessing function of a given protein, but was almost unheard of before 2002.
Proteomics–the use of mass spectrometry to rapidly and specifically identify proteins has become a key tool for all biomedical scientists.
Arrays–the use of “chips” containing hundreds or thousands of genes to determine which ones are ‘turned’ on and which ones are ‘turned off’ under various conditions or in disease cells.
The Human Genome Project–sequencing of the entire human genome, base by base, providing researchers with an online database containing all of our genes. Also unheard of 10-12 years ago as I began my post-doctoral studies.
The PubMed, online data banks, and online computation programs–not to underestimate the degree to which information technology has driven our progress. The Public library of Medicine at NIH, allowing instant access to millions of scientific abstracts (and open access papers) by simple search words, along with all the tremendous advances in computational biology have had a huge impact on the way we do science today.
Well I know I’ve only scratched the surface, so feel free to tender your own favorite technologies, and please vote! I’m going with the SiRNA, which has perhaps made the biggest impact on my own science.