A recent biography of crystallographer Max Perutz sounds well worth reading (Nature review, subscription only – sorry). Unfortunately, the reviewer (infamous for their Genome Biology editorials) just can’t resist slipping in this ill-informed dig:
What would he have made of the recent International Structural Genomics Initiative, I wonder, which aims to turn out massive numbers of protein crystal structures without regard to biological or biochemical function?
Some people just don’t get the biological informatics revolution, do they? Let me explain. In the past, researchers worked on narrow problems – often a single biological process, organism or even a molecule, for years. The most likely factor influencing their choice of system was – the interests of their first supervisor.
Now we have a wonderful tool called bioinformatics. Bioinformatics allows us to take large datasets – all sequences, all structures, all whatever you like and ask: “what’s interesting?” By applying appropriate computational filters (the devising of which is a creative research process), we can say: show me the putative metalloproteins, the putative DNA-binding proteins, the putative phosphorylation sites. Having reduced “everything” down to “interesting stuff”, we can then do some focused experiments.
In other words – deciding what to work on is no longer an arbitrary decision. The data tell us where to go.
The notion that the initial dataset itself is the be-all and end-all is simplistic and wrong. The notion that genomics researchers have no interest in understanding biological function is insulting.