A Revolution in Biology
“I have an idealistic view of science as a liberalising and progressive force for humanity. . . . It is also a truly international activity which breaks down barriers between peoples of the world, an objective that always has been necessary and never more so than now.”
– Paul Nurse, Le Prix Nobel
The elevator was supposed to go down to the powder room but mysteriously went up to the 8th floor at Manhattan’s Rockefeller University, where I was attending a two-day public Evolution symposium last May. As the doors opened, in walked Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist and Rockefeller University president Paul Nurse. I had emailed him, coincidentally, about an interview, and told him so while riding back down with him to the main floor. He was engaging, if perhaps a bit startled by the encounter (I’m taller). Once outside the building he made a quick escape and was soon halfway up the walkway to the talks at the Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome calling "Send me your stories!"
We bumped into one another again that night at the Evolution cocktail party and spoke briefly about the Charlie Rose Show science roundtables he’d co-hosted. I contacted him again recently and he agreed to a phone interview.
I didn’t know a lot about the man Paul Nurse at the time of the Rockefeller event beyond the extraordinary charm he exudes on television and his public honors and accomplishments. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1999 for his excellent cancer research, awarded the Nobel Prize in 2001 for discovering key regulators of the cell cycle, given the French Legion d’ Honneur in 2002, and named president of Rockefeller University in 2003. He’s also a fellow of the Royal Society, a foreign associate of the National Academy of Sciences and foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
I was happy to discover that he is self-made. Nurse grew up in the English countryside. His mother was a cook and part-time cleaner, his father a chauffeur and handyman and later a mechanic for Heinz.
Nurse writes in his autobiography that he fell in love with nature on long walks to school and became a biologist because of this. He says he had a difficult time in secondary school memorizing and didn’t test well. But he was so talented in science that the University of Birmingham eventually waived his French language admission requirement, for instance. Until it did, he worked for a lab associated with Guinness brewery.
Paul Nurse received his undergraduate degree in biology from the University of Birmingham and his PhD in molecular biology from the University of East Anglia. He was a professor of microbiology at Oxford for many years and also served as Director General, Imperial Cancer Research Center. His current research at Rockefeller University involves “the molecular machinery that drives cell division and controls cell shape”.
But he says he is “a complete amateur” when it comes to things like complexity and evolution.
Our interview follows.
SUZAN MAZUR: I’d like to pick up on the point you made at the World Science Festival in response to Stanford University physicist and string theorist Leonard Susskind saying there are elements of biology and evolution in physics, and that in 1905 physics “moved out of the domain of ordinary experience . . . into the domain of high velocity.”
To which you said: “Maybe biology is on the edge of something similar to 1905 physics with the emerging complexity of biological systems – in fact, a move from straight forward linear causality. And I do wonder whether biology may go through a revolution in the coming decades.” Can you expand on that?
Paul Nurse: Well I can expand a little bit, not enormously, as follows.
What I think I’m thinking about is that biology deals with complexity, with networks that are linked together in very complicated ways with all sorts of feedback, positive and negative. All sorts of redundancies, that is, if one part of the network fails, there are other ways of compensating for it.
Furthermore, networks that can change, unlike normal computer hardware. So you could rewire the networks in different ways in space and time. In cells and organisms. And as a consequence of this, a very complex set of behaviors can emerge.
They could be on the edge of chaos, which has been discussed a lot by others. They are difficult to predict intuitively.
SUZAN MAZUR: A number of biologists knowledgeable in the physical sciences have proposed that multicellular form and pattern are as much a function of the physics of mesoscale materials as of the gene products that constitute those materials. This has been claimed to present a direct challenge to Darwinian scenarios for the origin of organismal body plans. I was wondering if you see this as a potential 1905 moment for biology.
Paul Nurse: I don’t agree with the challenge to “Darwinian scenarios”.
Darwin himself argued that although natural selection is a driving force for change, there are restraints on organisms and how and where they can evolve. And that restraint, as he argued in 1859, is really the equivalent of what you refer to.
SUZAN MAZUR: Are you saying that the “restraint” that Darwin referred to is the equivalent of the evolutionary mechanisms these biologists are referring to?
Paul Nurse: What they, I think, are referring to is the fact that living things can’t occupy all of the phase-space. That is to say, there are certain limited stable states and conditions.
That’s one that’s been argued on and off for many years. I remember when I was a graduate student, for example, Brian Goodwin used to argue this. Darwin himself argued that there are restraints. Obviously, living things made of proteins and nucleic acids, denature at high temperature. These living organisms can’t live at very high temperatures. They have to live in watery environments at reasonable temperatures.
Those are the sort of restraints I think probably that Darwin was thinking of.
SUZAN MAZUR: Do you think the emerging complexity of biology might require a new mathematics or is it the reverse that the mathematics of straightforward linear causality is inappropriate in the first place and needs to be replaced by math for which the emergent complexity of life is an epiphenomenon of more fundamental physical processes that these mathematics model?
Paul Nurse: It may require a new mathematics. Because I’m not a mathematician I’m not quite sure what that might generate/ do.
It may require a different sort of language, by which I mean, quite often what biologists do is make interaction maps. Does A touch B touch C touch D and so on.
But, in fact, the nature of those interactions varies. Sometimes they just touch and do nothing. Sometimes they touch and turn into something else. Sometimes they touch and change another connection.
Using simple network analogies, like transport networks for example – it’s not appropriate because it’s not reflecting the biology. It’s reflecting a man-made simplified interaction network. So we may need different language which could lead to different mathematics to describe this – and that this is not going to be intuitive, to go back to my earlier point.
We perhaps have to think, I’ve sometimes argued this, of better ways to move from the chemistry of life, which we’re rather good at describing, into how that chemistry is translated into the management of information.
There are very good examples of that. DNA is a chemical that has a structure that can be translated into a digital information storage device. And we understand its role in biology in terms of a digital information device.
What we think about is the storage of information and how it’s translated. I think we may need to think of better ways of translating the chemistry, which is what most of us do, into the management of information.
SUZAN MAZUR: This is a bit off the point, but I was just watching a 1986 television interview with Isaac Asimov, where he said “I have no hesitation in invading fields.” He said he knew nothing about astronomy, for instance, before he started writing his books. That he was self-educated in astronomy. He thought there was no harm in generalists in science and that the danger was too much specialization.
I wondered if you had any thoughts about that. The fact that you’re presenting speakers at the World Science Festival to a public audience and on the Charlie Rose Show. You must think that it’s important that the wider audience be brought into the thinking and discussion of science and evolution.
Paul Nurse: I think it’s very important for science and scientists to be talking to the general public.
SUZAN MAZUR: And on the evolution issue, particularly?
Paul Nurse: For example, evolution. But actually on many topics, simply because we receive enormous support from the public and the public has to think that there is something there that’s worth supporting, which is, improving the health, wealth creation and better quality of life, etc.
But it’s probably a different point you’re making, which is a more generalist one I guess.
SUZAN MAZUR: Well there are some ideas out there in the public that could be useful.
Paul Nurse: I don’t know. When we say the public, I certainly think that there are ideas out there which touch lots of different disciplines. So I think having interdisciplinary, multi-disciplinary approaches could be interesting. Whether they will come from the public, I’m not sure.
SUZAN MAZUR: That’s what’s happening now because of the Internet.
Paul Nurse: It is but there’s so much garbage on the Internet. And everybody wants to have a grand idea.
Like you were saying, people say, oh they’ve proven Darwin wrong. I mean this is just publicity really. It isn’t real sort of argument.
SUZAN MAZUR: So you’re saying Darwin has already said this.
Paul Nurse: In that case yes, but it’s all become too much of a totem. Of course, how could Darwin get everything right in 1859? I mean it’s just ridiculous. It’s just one of these really stupid arguments.
SUZAN MAZUR: New language to say the same thing?
Paul Nurse: Well the new language part was really just to try and deal with the complexity of nature. And I’m saying nothing new. People have talked and discussed about this for ages.
Kant was the first person I came across talking about systems, etc. over 200 years ago. But more recently since the Second World War, in the 1940s and 1950s information theory, game theory, Shanon, Weinberg, et al. – these characters thought a lot about information, and how it’s managed.
This was overshadowed by the molecular biology revolution, which has a very powerful way of understanding things. It didn’t focus on complexity and indeed could not encompass that complexity. And now I see what’s very interesting is that we can use the rigor and tools of molecular biology and molecular genetics, combined with a better understanding of complexity.
That’s much more fertile ground for these discussions than we’ve had for 30, 40 years.
SUZAN MAZUR: Your own work on evolution at present is on what?
Paul Nurse: Everything I’m talking about here, both in evolution or in terms of complexity is not my research area – I’m a complete amateur.
SUZAN MAZUR: What panel are you presenting at the World Science Festival this year?
Paul Nurse: They’ve just written to me about this. I think I’m doing something on storytelling.
SUZAN MAZUR’s reports have appeared in the Financial Times, The Economist, Forbes, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Archaeology, Connoisseur, Omni and others, as well as on PBS, CBC and MBC. She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox Television News programs. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org