Paradigm shifts in science: are we ready?

Science — great science — takes time. I am not talking about the actual time it takes to conduct research, write a research paper, and if the wind is blowing that day have it published sans correction in a reputable journal. Here I am talking about the time it takes for that great, paradigm-shifting idea to take hold and rock the academic world. You see, as scientists we are sceptical and methodical by nature and training. This means that we are surprisingly slow at really accepting revolutionary new ideas, or even proposing them, until the weight of evidence (painstakingly collected!) is on our side. Despite what many people think, true scientific innovation is therefore slow. And some people suggest we should slow down even further…

This year marks twenty-four years since the hologenome concept of evolution was first publicly introduced[1]. The notion that small microbial organisms inhabit ever part of our body is now widely accepted (the good, the bad, and the REALLY bad). However, what most people are not aware of, is that the genome (all genetic material) of these microbes interacts with our genome. Because these microbes live in/on our bodies, the collective term of their genome and ours is “hologenome”. To many evolutionary biologists and evolutionary ecologists this idea of the hologenome is intuitive, but very few scientist are working on understanding how the hologenome can be acted upon by evolutionary processes – few people are examining how the hologenome might impact the creation of new species, dispersal/migration of species, divergence within species, and selection imposed upon the species by the environment.

As I mentioned in my previously blog post here and here, I consider myself an ecologist — an evolutionary ecologist to be exact. As a result, my current Ph.D work is focused on understanding and developing techniques/approaches that can be used to engineer the hologenome to improve plant health. I am interested in unlocking the hidden the mysteries of the hologenome. I play around with plant genetics and microbial genetics to understand which evolutionary processes shape their interactions. There are still far too few scientists interested in understanding these interactions.

Which leaves me wondering: Is it time to change the way we operate as a scientific community? Could we speed up the process of discovering truly ground-breaking ideas like E=mc2, evolution, the structure of DNA, epigenetics? Are we ready to embrace the idea of truly collaboration across disciplines and skills sets, creating scientific ‘melting pots’ that could accelerate the process of discovery and creation? Or are we too set in our ways?

[1] Richard Jefferson first introduced the concept at a public meeting in 1994


When I began my tertiary education, I must admit I had no idea where I would be today. The girl from the dusty streets of eMalahleni surely had coal in her hands, determined to turn it into diamonds. There are many of young people yearning to feed the fire inside of them, wanting to harness it and do the unimaginable. I can see it in the faces of the anxious and excited first-years milling around campus; I can see it amongst the postgrads arriving at institutions early, worrying about deadlines, experiments, chapters to be submitted. What, then, stops us? What leads so many of us to just give up on our grand dreams?

I think it’s a wall; a mental block.

My dream is to ensure that the environment is preserved for future generations, and it might seem strange that I use a stripy little fish, dressed in a Kaizer chief’s jerseyzebrafish-adult, to achieve my dreams. These small fish are quite useful in that they assist scientists to determine whether chemicals will be toxic to people and other organisms. In actual fact, it is their eggs that are used. The fish produce large numbers of these transparent eggs at a time. Being able to look into the egg, seeing the embryo’s heart beating, blood flowing and turning into a proper fish within five days, is what makes them so special. When conditions are less than ideal, the rate at which the eggs hatch, their deformations and ultimately death, are a clear indicator of harmful chemicals and environments.

Zebrafish development
Zebrafish development

Although very useful, breeding these little zebrafish was not easy: they swim quite rapidly, with my first attempt resulting in snail eggs, which I mistook for zebrafish embryos! Learning that their living conditions including, temperature, amount of day and night, as well as the presence of flowers were important, took me a while. Even more surprising was coming to know that the female preferred two males, battling it out over her! Resilience was important in my year-and-a-half struggle to getting my first 200 eggs!! And most of this struggle happened “behind the scenes” with no-one watching my every more; it’s the stuff that you don’t write about in papers or even discuss in presentations… Which reminds me of another trial I had to overcome –my first oral presentation!!! It was awful, probably because I was extremely nervous and afraid of presenting in front of unfamiliar faces and experts in the field. Let’s just say I was relieved when it ended! Granted, with time, improvements have been made lol…

In hindsight, one would say that higher education does not only build you on paper, but also in character. Participating in research has required me to completely get out of my comfort zone. Much of that growth is built on what I do when no-one is watching, when no-one is there to pat me on the back or help solve a problem. But my point to you is, you need to make this choice — to be what you’ve always imagined you could be — even when you’re alone in the lab or behind the computer. This could be the greatest gift you give yourself. 

It is true that no goal that is worth it is achieved easily… Now that the diamond is in my grasp, it is time to polish it into an even more priceless jewel.