When I was in school and first learning about science, I was enthralled by how research was a quest to solve a problem or answer a question. In my teenage years, I refined my interest in a science career by deciding to become a biochemist and cure cancer. As I progressed through college, I realized this was too broad an endeavor for one person (i.e., the mechanism of carcinogenesis had vast and variable origins), and that biology was built on the knowledge, research and hypotheses of many scientists working on a singular subject.
Learning from a textbook gives a student a sense of “this is what is established” in biology. We know that retroviruses create DNA from RNA strands using reverse transcriptase, but I understood at an earlier time, this was not an established theory but a hypothesis that went against the scientific grain. In the 1960s, biologists knew that RNA was transcribed from DNA and polypeptides were synthesized using the RNA template, a unidirectional flow of information that was considered dogmatic. When David Baltimore and Howard Temin independently found enzymatic activity in their RNA virus-infected mouse cells that they called an RNA-directed DNA polymerase and published their papers on the discovery in 1970, their peers were resistant to the heretical idea that RNA could synthesize DNA.
As a college student in the 1990s, I had to dig around in primary literature and other sources to read about how the vociferous arguments that genetic information encoded by DNA only goes in one direction converted to acceptance that retroviruses carried RNA templates and reverse transcriptase to synthesize DNA in the host cell. I found this topic fascinating reading and began delving into more literature about retroviruses. In graduate school, I was able to blend my desire for cancer research with my interest in retroviruses by joining an HIV-1 lab in the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research on the UW-Madison campus.
While my career path has lead me to scientific editing rather than bench top research, I have always retained fascination with the evolving hypotheses in science. So much is happening in so many different fields, it is difficult to keep up with all the research and ideas. My current job includes reading general science news, editing articles and technical literature, creating technical illustrations and writing about scientific products so I broadly touch on many fields of biology. It is interesting to learn what students are now being taught that just two decades previously was a new and controversial hypothesis or how quickly a new idea was accepted in its field.
What are your predictions for a current radical hypothesis turned to a future evidence-backed theory?