“Convergence”: the Third Revolution in Life Sciences

In the 1930s, researchers trying to understand life at the molecular-level realized that what they needed to know involved not only biology but also chemistry and physics.  The convergence of these disciplines into molecular biology is considered the First Revolution in the life sciences.

Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 ushered in the Second Revolution: genomics.  Genomics is helping us crack the code of life and decipher who we are, for example, with the mapping of the human genome that is now more than a decade behind us.

In recent years, people put a capital letter on a timeless concept—“Convergence”—to describe a Third Revolution: one that merges the life and physical sciences with engineering to produce the scientific advances of the future.  The notion isn’t new; nor is it limited to the life sciences. In fact the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) has been providing grants aimed at catalyzing interdisciplinary research at the intersection of science, engineering and medicine since 2003.

However, convergence seems especially promising in making medical advances.  For example, a Boston-based research company has created a device that detects even very the smallest amounts of cancer cells in a patient’s blood samples. The device took the collaboration of physicists to calculate the optimal flow of blood through the chip, engineers to construct the tiny chip, biologists to attach the appropriate antibodies to the chip, and clinicians to test the chip under real-world conditions.  The device is 99% accurate.

This and other examples of convergence were laid out in an MIT white paper, published in 2011, which recommends ways to increase convergence in biomedical research.  The MIT writers cited inspiration from several NRC studies that address convergence, including Research at the Intersection of the Physical and Life Sciences  (2010), A New Biology for the 21st Century (2009), and Inspired by Biology: From Molecules to Materials to Machines (2008).  Convergence is not just about collaboration, but rather about jointly applying the fundamentally different approaches that each discipline brings to a problem.

Now the NRC’s Board on Life Sciences has outlined a study that, once funded, examines how convergence in biomedical research can be fostered through institutional and programmatic structures and policies, education and training programs, and funding mechanisms.

“I think we all can see the value of convergence,” said Fran Sharples, Director of the Board on Life Sciences. “The question now is what is the best way to make it happen more often?”

Presidents’ Circle members are encouraged to engage with the National Research Council on the important topic of convergence in biomedical research. If you’re interested, please contact Dick Foster or Davis Masten.