A GROUP of biologists, led by a University of California-Davis scientist, is suggesting that decades of focusing on genes have led the scientific community away from a balanced exploration of the organisms that those genes define — whether they be plants, animals or microorganisms.
In an article appearing in the June issue of the journal BioScience, the researchers said genetic variation alone does not adequately explain the intricate variations in the physiology and behavior of complex organisms. They proposed a renewed emphasis on studying individual organisms in the context of specific environments, considering in greater depth the unique environmental exposures and experiences over the course of these organisms' lives.
"Biology's strong focus on genes during the past 50 years has generated a solid foundation for studying the mechanisms that determine the phenotype — the structure and function — of living organisms," said Dietmar Kueltz, a professor of physiological genomics in the University of California-Davis department of animal science.
He noted that despite the wide-ranging practical implications, little is known about how such mechanisms are influenced by the unique, lifelong sequence of environmental exposures individuals experience.
For instance, an individual person's disease susceptibility, stress resilience, coping ability and other important performance traits, as well as complex behavioral patterns, decision-making and human psychology, are not only determined by genes but also greatly influenced by prior exposures, learning and life history experiences.
"It is critical that we now emphasize more strongly the complementation of gene-oriented approaches with a renewed focus on the organismal phenotypes in the context of specific environments and life histories in order to better understand and explain the physiology and behavior of such complex organisms," Kueltz said.
Kueltz and his colleagues maintain that during the past several decades, biological research has moved away from the organism in two gene-focused directions: inward, toward the world of cellular and molecular biology, and outward, toward the broad-scale evolutionary issues of population and quantitative genetics.
"These two movements resulted in many monumental discoveries and advances that now define modern biology," Kueltz said. "The challenge now is to make the most of the vast insights from those movements and develop a deeper understanding of how, for example, variations in individual physiological and behavioral traits influence ecological and evolutionary processes."
Kueltz and his colleagues advised that a modern research emphasis on organismal phenotypes will require cross-fertilization and integration of traditionally disparate fields of biology, including developmental biology, physiology, morphology, behavioral biology, neuroscience, ecology and evolutionary biology.