Nobel Laureate Craig Mello Reflects on the Unifying Force of Science

  • by Craig C Mello
  • July 05, 2016
  • Voices

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We all have questions. Where did we come from? Why are we here? Although the “whys” are generally left to philosophers, the “wheres” and “hows” are fodder for scientific exploration.

Science is a unifying enterprise, one that brings us together to solve problems, fuel our sense of wonder, and understand our place in the world. Through scientific inquiry, we peer deeply into the infinitesimal workings of individual cells and outward into the unimaginable expanses of the cosmos. And I am optimistic that science can point us toward a path to a brighter and sustainable future, one in which we can together realize our common destiny as inhabitants of this small and fragile planet.

There are so many forces that divide us: barriers of language, customs, ideology, and belief. But science transcends these forces. Science is a path to knowledge that begins with a simple and humbling admission: “I don’t know, but I wonder how, where, or why.” Science values questions, not beliefs. Science looks beyond dogma and demands evidence. The resulting knowledge crosses all borders and makes its way around the world. Knowledge belongs to us all. As a scientist, every day you’re confronted with your ignorance. Every day, you’re exploring a new frontier, seeking new vistas, and often realizing that your ideas were wrong, that there are so many things you don’t yet understand.

Science reveals things so profound, they change the way we see the world and ourselves. The sequence of letters in our DNA has shown how closely we are related to each other and to every living thing on the planet today—the house plants in your window and the goldfish in your bowl are your relatives. It seems incredible, but even bacteria are your relatives. Indeed you are actually part bacteria, as you arose from an ancestral cell that combined with a bacterial cell and incorporated their genes into your own DNA. A literal fusion of two organisms into one.

This may seem a humbling tale, but the rewards for this humility are tremendous. Some are very practical. Some hit close to home. My daughter has Type 1 diabetes and is alive today thanks to countless scientific breakthroughs. The insulin that she needs to live was discovered by biochemists nearly 100 years ago. Originally insulin was extracted from animal tissue, but today it is made by genetically engineered bacteria. Amazingly, these humble E. coli, when supplied with the blueprint for human insulin (the insulin gene), can read the human genetic code and produce functional human insulin protein that keeps my daughter and millions of other diabetics alive. That’s right, not all genetically modified organisms are bad; this human insulin-producing E. coli is a GMO that saves millions of lives.

Science shows us how much we still have to learn. Which is what makes the whole process so beautiful. Because the more deeply we look, the more mysterious and breathtaking our world is shown to be. Science deepens the mystery of our existence and opens our eyes to the wonder and beauty of nature. Take, for example, the Hubble Space Telescope. When astronomers pointed it at an apparently empty segment of space, they revealed not utter blackness but galaxies upon galaxies—star formations whose light has been traveling for 13.7 billion years, since the beginning of the universe.

But more than holding up a mirror to the beauty of the universe, science holds the power to transform us. There are serious problems with our world today. Too many people living in the world’s cities, producing too much pollution. Humans are disturbing the balance of the whole Earth biosphere. Like bacteria growing in a culture dish, eventually we are going to run out of nutrients and the things we need to sustain us. We need to make some changes before society reaches this breaking point.

I am confident that we can come up with ways to promote sustainable living—and that science can help lead the way. We need to invest in technologies that will allow us to produce food locally and in abundance, houses that produce sufficient energy to power their occupants’ needs—with enough left over to charge the family’s electric car.

As a society, we should focus on unlocking the potential of our people, both young and old, and work on educating everyone who has a desire to learn. And we should make sure we continue to invest in the kinds of exploration that inspire people—perhaps even attempt to colonize space. Our greatest achievements often come from doing things that do not seem immediately practical.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that this is the right way to go: to raise enthusiasm about the future of humankind and about delving together into the great unknowns. It’s an exciting time to be alive, and I would love for all people to be able to realize what a grand adventure life is and, when you stop to look closely at the world we share, how incredible it really is—more so than anything we could ever have imagined.