VOICES Beyond Rocket Science: Seeking Solutions To Complex, Global Challenges Through Life Science Research

There’s no doubt we face complex, global challenges in food, environment, bioenergy and human health and nutrition. Solutions will rely on new ways of thinking, new technology and analytics, new partnerships and new transdisciplinary teams.

It’s not rocket science, folks. It’s more complex than that. Solutions must be economically viable, environmentally sound, socially acceptable and resilient. They must make sense for the time and for the place.

For anything new to have impact and endure, it needs to be built upon a strong foundation. For the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, that foundation is life sciences.

We have more than 150 years of success focused on crops, livestock, food,  environment, nutrition and socioeconomics related to agriculture. What you may not know is that life sciences—including biology, biochemistry, ecology and genetics—have been and continue to be key to our success in science. It enriches our research portfolio, which today is both broad and deep, spanning so-called “basic science” to “applied science.”

In 2009, a National Research Council report, “A New Biology for the 21st Century,” outlined an approach to addressing major societal challenges of food, environment, energy and health. A key to this approach was the integration of knowledge across the life sciences, mathematics and engineering. The report stressed that the “New Biology” would build upon, not replace, “fundamental and curiosity-driven” research.

A few examples of our “beyond rocket science” work shows how we are tackling global challenges through life sciences:

Research on zebrafish using advanced genetics called TALENS is poised to enhance food production and address human health concerns (see page 22).

Breakthroughs in understanding plant-parasitic interactions at the genetic level may lead to new ways to thwart a $1 billion annual loss nationally in soybean production (see page 25).

Double haploid technology allows corn breeders to more quickly produce corn inbred lines that better resist pests, respond better under extreme climatic conditions and have enhanced nutritional value.

New understanding of components involved in plant cell wall development is central to biorefineries producing the next generation of fuels and renewable products.

Scientists are learning more about a naturally occurring enzyme that converts glucose in plants directly into isobutene, a valuable, green fuel additive and  industrial chemical.

A blend of molecular virology, computational modeling, protein structure and function and veterinary pathology drives new vaccine strategies to combat a horse lentivirus and may shed light on a close cousin of the disease in humans, HIV.

Capturing genetic and biochemical blueprints of medicinal plants may lead to advances in drug discovery and development for improved human health.

Using biology and enzymology to understand how plants and animals repair DNA damage can benefit human health, including new options for cancer treatment.

Ecology and evolutionary biology using a unique eye model in mollusks could advance therapies for human diseases causing vision loss.

You get the idea. The college’s fundamental work in life sciences is the basis for solving complex, global challenges. It’s a key part of how we are engaged in learning, discovery, translation and service for the benefit of Iowa and the world.

It’s not rocket science, folks! It’s more complex, and more meaningful!