Biology Past and Biology Future: Where have we been and where are we going?

Presentation by Bruce Alberts
Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics,
University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), USA

We have always underestimated cells; undoubtedly we still do today. But at least we are no longer as naive as we were when I was a graduate student in the 1960s. It turns out that we can walk and we can talk because the chemistry that makes life possible is enormously elaborate and sophisticated. Cells are the basic unit of life, and proteins make up most of their dry mass. But instead of a cell dominated by randomly colliding individual protein molecules, we now know that nearly every major process in a cell is carried out by assemblies of 10 or more protein molecules, comprising a “protein machine”. Indeed, the entire cell can be viewed as a factory that contains an elaborate network of interlocking assembly lines, each of which is composed of a set of different protein machines in defined positions.

There are many exciting challenges ahead for biologists. Living organisms are so complicated that we will need new methods of analysis to achieve any deep understanding of their molecular mechanisms. To take just one example, large organisms like ourselves are formed from thousands of billions of cells, which join together to form an elaborate cell cooperative. Because each cell in this cooperative must behave in a manner appropriate for the organism as a whole, the cells must constantly read the signals from their surroundings to decide whether to remain quiescent (the normal state for most of them), to multiply to create more identical cells, to both multiply and differentiate to produce cells of a different type, or to die for the good of their neighbors. Rarely, mistakes are made; some cause diseases such as cancer, destroying the whole cooperative. There are therefore both intellectual and practical reasons for scientists to concentrate on understanding how a cell makes decisions, a process that we might loosely refer to as “cell thinking.”

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Speaker’s profile
Bruce Alberts, a respected biochemist with a strong commitment to the improvement of science and mathematics education, has returned to the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco, after serving two six-year terms as the president of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). 

During his tenure at the NAS, Alberts was instrumental in developing the landmark National Science Education standards that have been implemented in school systems nationwide.

Alberts is also noted as one of the original authors of The Molecular Biology of the Cell, a preeminent textbook in the field now in its fourth edition. For the period 2000 to 2009, he serves as the co-chair of the InterAcademy Council, a new organization in Amsterdam governed by the presidents of 15 national academies of sciences and established to provide scientific advice to the world.

Committed in his international work to the promotion of the “creativity, openness and tolerance that are inherent to science,” Alberts believes that “scientists all around the world must now band together to help create more rational, scientifically-based societies that find dogmatism intolerable.”

Widely recognized for his work in the fields of biochemistry and molecular biology, Alberts has earned many honors and awards, including 15 honorary degrees. He currently serves on the advisory boards of more than 15 non-profit institutions. He is an Overseer at Harvard University, a Trustee of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a Trustee of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the president-elect of the American Society of Cell Biology.

Since returning to UCSF last fall as a full-time professor in his old department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, Alberts has been focusing on applying aspects of what he learned in Washington --both about teaching and learning and about stimulating innovation -- to his local environment.

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