Friday, July 25, 2008

Question Creep

If a billion scientists studied life on earth for a billion years, they would leave more unanswered questions than we now know exist.

Every project I have ever been involved with, or heard of, has generated far more questions than it has answered, not because the researchers were doing a bad job, but because one can't study any organism in detail without realizing how little one knows about it. Humans are the favorite research subject of humans, and we have published literally billions of articles on us, every aspect of our biology and behavior has been the topic of intense research, and yet there is still a huge amount we don't understand about ourselves, neurologically, chemically, socially, medically, you-name-it-ly.
And after all this research, we have succeeded in creating whole new fields of study to generate more questions. Genomics being an obvious example of a new field that is question rich.

That level of research (at least on the biological and chemical sides) could be applied to any of the hundreds of millions of life forms out there, and we would still be generating questions about that species. And then their are all the questions about the differences and similarities between species, the way that life has changed over time, the evolutionary, ecological and social interactions between species, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum.

This plays out quite clearly in my own little lab. As a grad student, I am lucky to have a very small lab space that I share with another student and my ~$25K worth of borrowed equipment. Oh but the use that tiny little room gets. Any day of the year there are at least three people in there looking at rotifers for four hours. I got into studying rotifers to answer a question about humans, why our females have such a long post-reproductive lifespan. But now that I need data on rotifer demographics, and have a horde of undergraduates studying them, my students and I have raised a huge range of related questions. To give you a sense, here is a short list of the projects currently under way, or in planning:

1. I started with the question, will rotifers evolve a post-reproductive lifespan if exposed to selective pressures similar to those thought to have caused human females to survive well past menopause?

2. I brought on LZ as an assistant, and she wondered what demographic factors influence when a rotifer reproduces sexually as opposed to asexually?

3. I hired PB as a work-study student, and she is working on an assigned side project, looking at how the size of a rotifer's eggs vary based on her size and age. This arose out of discussion with LZ in which we wondered if egg size could be affecting mode of reproduction.

4. Another student, NN, came on as a volunteer and got fascinated with rotifer biomechanics. Her senior honors thesis will ask how rotifers use their cilia for movement and feeding, and how does this vary with size and between males and females?

5. We noticed that when we do get sexually competent rotifers, they generally won't mate with their own sons. I asked a former student of mine, SM, to join the rotifer lab and investigate incest avoidance in rotifers. Now she is in the lab most afternoons taking video of rotifers mating, or choosing not to mate.

6. In studying the demography, we found that we could often visually identify when a rotifer was 'sick.' We wondered if we could categorize these 'sick' behaviors, and use our demographic data set to test whether our perceptions of sickness consistently presage death. HC, who came on as a volunteer, is working on this.

7. With all these projects looking at rotifer behavior, I decided it was important to have a unified terminology to describe the behaviors we were seeing. So I have two students, LF and HL, working on an ethogram, a list of behaviors with a description and diagram of each.

8. One of my lab mates in the Moritz lab is studying how water filtration affects the progression of the Chytrid disease that is killing off large numbers of amphibian species. It occurred to me that rotifers live in the same habitats as amphibians, and eat things the size of the Chytrid zoospores, the mobile cells that cause infections and reinfections. A former rotifer rangler, CW, is planning experiments to ask whether rotifers will eat chytrid zoospores, and if so whether that information can be applied to amphibian conservation. (Chytrid Experiment).

Every one of these projects is doable, and all of them will generate far more questions than they answer. I have my billion years work cut out for me.

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