Whenever it is announced that budgets must be tightened, it is often scientists performing basic research who are among the first to be called to justify their financial support. Everyone can usually agree that investigating a promising cancer or disease treatment deserves funding, but when it comes to a basic research program, an exploration of a particular niche of the world that doesn’t seem to immediately benefit humanity, the general public is more skeptical in funding this research. After all, isn’t basic research a luxury best reserved for when there is money to burn?

As an answer, we would like to outline several gifts to humankind from basic research:

Green Fluorescent Protein. Scientists were extracting a luminescent substance called aequorin from jellyfish in the waters off Washington State. As aequorin emits blue light in the presence of calcium ions, it attracted interest as a possible calcium probe. But it was noticed that these jellyfish also possessed a smaller amount of a green compound. This minor side product, although beautiful, had no apparent utility whatsoever.

CRISPR

Basic research on “lowly” organisms like the jellyfish have led to revolutionary tools including GFP and CRISPR. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

While working on aequorin, the researchers also isolated enough of this minor green product to further study its structure and properties. This was a labor-intensive process that spanned much of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP), as it is now called, turned out to be quite far from minor, since it was a protein that was fluorescent all by itself. Nothing else in the jellyfish was necessary for its fluorescence.

This meant that GFP could be attached to just about any other protein from any organism to literally shine light on when proteins are made, where they go, and what they do [1]. Since its discovery, GFP has been used in a dizzying amount of studies, and including a multitude of drug discovery studies.

Restriction Enzymes and CRISPR. Restriction enzymes were discovered from studies on how bacteria fight off infection from a virus. Scientists discovered that this virus was having trouble increasing its numbers in a particular strain of E. coli. It was later learned that this effect was due to this strain’s ability to enzymatically cleave the viral DNA.

Although DNA was cut randomly in this case, researchers later found that other such enzymes cut DNA at specific sequences of base pairs. Combined with enzymes that can stitch together DNA, scientists now have at their disposal a toolbox to “cut and paste” DNA in a controlled fashion, an essential feature of molecular cloning. Molecular cloning has been used in a wide variety of medical research, including the research that went into developing synthetic insulin. In fact, Assay Depot offers many DNA services that include molecular cloning that can aid drug discovery research.

And as we recently detailed, this CRISPR that you may keep hearing about lately was discovered from another tactic that bacteria use to resist viral infection. An explosion of research articles relating to CRISPR attest to the promise CRISPR holds in targeting specific genes and its possibility as a therapy in drug discovery research.

If you needed convincing, we hope that this article has shown some of the values of basic research. Stay tuned for Part 2, where we will discuss RNAi, which is a major technique discovered through basic research.

This article is a guest blog on Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable’s Roundtable Review

References:

  1. Tsien, R.Y.  et al. (1998) The green fluorescent protein. Annu. Rev. Biochem. 67:509-544.
  2. Luria, S.E. et al. (1952) A nonhereditary, host-induced variation of bacterial viruses. J. Bacteriol. 64:557-569.