Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Fruits of Tinkering With Nature

Michael Chorost has an interesting article on the short history of optogenetics. In it he describes the work of Peter Hegemann, a biologist who studied the green algae in the 1990's that led to the discovery of the light-gated ion channel, channelrhodopsin. As Chorost describes it,
Under a microscope, the cell looks like a little football with a tail. When the organism is exposed to light, its tail wags madly, moving the cell forward.... This was good, solid cell research. Fascinating little machines! But completely useless fascinating little machines. It wasn’t until the end of the decade that scientists figured out how they might be put to use.
The research that led to optogenetics is a good example of how hard it is to tell whether or not a given line of inquiry will be "useful." Researchers can't know which experiments will be useful with a high degree of certainty prior to their execution. If they did, there would be no reason to even run them. Restricting research to only a "useful" subset takes away scientist's creativity in behavioral experiments, without which, progress will inevitably slow down.