Far from the Crowd

October 3, 2016

October’s new Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology was awarded to a deserving pioneer, Dr. Yoshinori Ohsumi, for his work to describe the process of autophagy – the removal of cellular debris, which is essential as human beings and other living organisms replenish our tissues throughout our lives.

Dr. Ohsumi’s original research is an inspiring example illustrating why support of true pioneers, people with the intellectual courage and creativity to head in new directions, is essential to scientific progress. In the past few decades we’ve seen an over-emphasis on the pursuit of smaller and smaller details of known processes in bioscience, and relatively less emphasis on exploratory research into the many mysteries left unsolved in biology.

While many experts now enthusiastically embrace the need for new approaches and quantitative systems understanding of living systems, support for such pioneering work is somewhat limited. This Nobel Prize is a signal that thinking conceptually about new understanding – even in the absence of pre-existing links to specific disease states or economic opportunities – is welcome and needed in this still-young field of bioscience.

At The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, our founding mission is to seek the unexplored territory in bioscience and support uncertain expeditions by creative innovators. Our Allen Distinguished Investigators and Allen Discovery Centers are taking new approaches to mysteries such as how cell identity is determined, how large collections of cells interact during infection, and the ways that tissues utilize information processing to guide tissue shape, repair, and regeneration.

As Dr. Ohsumi put it, “Most people decide to work on the most popular field… I always look for a new subject to study, even if it is not so popular. If you start from some sort of basic, new observation, you will have plenty to work on.”

We believe there are major unsolved problems in evolution, epigenetics, ecosystem scale complexity, and developmental biology to work on, among many remaining mysteries of life. We hope that this Nobel Prize will encourage more young scientists and experienced leaders alike to venture into the unknown. In doing so, they will become a vital part of the landscape of knowledge that is at present so fragmentary and incomplete.

As the landscape becomes clearer, we will also begin to realize benefits to society as we gain the ability to design and manipulate living systems for both new medical therapies and new environmental solutions that maintain the Earth for future generations.

-- Tom Skalak, Ph.D., Executive Director, The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group