Nobel laureate ignites youth with insights into biology

By Fakir Balaji, IANS

Visakhapatnam : Nobel laureate and Rockefeller University president Sir Paul M. Nurse went down memory lane at the Indian Science Congress here to kindle young Indians with insights into the fascinating world of biology and living forms.

Support TwoCircles

“Biology is not a mere academic stuff to cram at school or college and be done with. It is a life-long passionate subject that unfolds secrets of nature, creation, evolution and dissolution.

“As an organised system with unique structures comprising cells, genes and natural selection, biology holds exciting opportunities in years to come, thanks to recent genetic discoveries and modern research in plant, animal and human life,” Sir Paul said at the 95th Indian Science Congress here late Friday.

Nurse, who won the 2001 Nobel Prize in medicine, told about 1,200 young scientists and students that ever since the cell was discovered in 1665 by Robert Hooke, genetic changes and evolutionary alterations over the last three centuries had brought about a paradigm shift in studying it (cell) with life as chemistry and biology as an organized system.

The 58-year-old Britain-born Nurse was awarded the Nobel Prize along with Leland H. Hartwell and R. Timothy Hunt for their discoveries of key regulators of the cell cycle, which consists of several phases.

In the first phase, the cell grows and becomes larger. When it reached a certain size it enters the next phase, in which DNA-synthesis takes place. The cell duplicates its hereditary material and a copy of each chromosome is formed. Subsequently, the cell checks that DNA-replication is completed and prepares for cell division.

Demystifying biology as a complex subject and a prerogative of only scientists to deal with, Nurse said for a better understanding of life itself, behaviour of organisms and how species come into existence, it was imperative biology was taught or learnt as a natural phenomenon and a valuable asset in a knowledge society.

“For instance, the principle of natural selection propounded by Charles Darwin enabled humankind to evolve a better life as times changed. Though genetic changes and evolutionary alterations could not be reversed, scientists could modify their functions by discovering products that have made mortals lead a healthy and long life,” Nurse recalled.

In his presentation on “The Great Ideas of Biology”, Nurse said that though human beings thought to be more intelligent or smarter than other species, their life was not intelligently designed or structured to resist the inevitable – ageing with diminishing returns.

A cell is a basic unit of life. When scientists, especially biologists began exploring it, the findings revealed the startling nature of cells, their properties, governing principles and behavioural patterns.

The genetic discovery by Gregor Mendel made the world understand what is hereditary and its unique commonality. His findings, which were found to be accurate and formed the basis for formulating the genetic theory, were based on the study of sweet pea. His research was recognised after three independent groups came to the same conclusions 35 years later.

“What ever be the claims, tools invented so far by man were based on the scientific observation of bird species in different shapes and sizes, which evolved on their preying habits and the manner in which they used their beak. Similarly, aviation hubs worldwide are networked as cells and neurons are in multi-cellular beings,” Nurse affirmed.

While evolution by natural selection emerged as a mechanism, physics and chemistry came into play as a life process.

The topic of presentation was based on Nurse’s famous book titled “The Great Ideas of Biology,” which was compiled in 2004 from his Romanes lecture in 2003.

It is about how cell discovery revolutionised biology and its consequences for the future. Nurse challenged the idiosyncratic stamp collecting habits of biology by explaining four great ideas that described the nature of life and a fifth one that was still an idea in progress.

The Romanes Lecture is an annual address in the University of Oxford, traditionally focusing on topics relating to science, art or literature.