How did eukaryotic life – the realm that includes humans – evolve? Ten years ago, this was the question that occupied Thijs Ettema and his colleagues. They found the answer in the genomes of previously unknown microorganisms collected from deep within the Atlantic Ocean1. Hidden within these sequences were features of cells from two different types of organisms – archaea and eukaryotes. The first describes a group of single-celled organisms lacking a nucleus; the latter, organisms whose cells contain a membrane-bound nucleus and other organelles. Ettema, now at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands, and his colleagues were surprised to find microbes that combined characteristics of both cell types.
The microbes that forge their lives in the warm waters surrounding underwater vents also have uses in the laboratory. They produced a host of robust enzymes. These are stable at high temperatures and resistant to degradation, and have become staples in molecular biology laboratories and biotechnology companies around the world. Each newly identified microbe that thrives in extreme environments offers a new opportunity to discover more enzymes – but that was not Ettema’s goal.
When researchers report fundamental findings, their articles often include a sentence or more about potential applications of their work. This is often a condition of certain types of grants. But even when it doesn’t, funders (and journals too) expect basic science to lead to practical applications, whether in the clinic, in business, or in society. in general.
The life of archaea
It is true that the fundamental discoveries about cell division in yeast2for example, could eventually contribute to new cancer treatments, or that a rudimentary microbial immune system3 could provide the basis for a genome editing tool. (Both happened.) But if there’s a line between basic science and applications, it’s unlikely to be straight. Instead, it will probably look like a drawing of a maze, with lots of circles, U-turns, and dead ends. Ettema says he was never tempted to predict an application for his microbes – which were eventually named Asgard archaea – because that would have been just a distraction. “I think these are just fascinating bodies that can tell us something about a very important question that we always ask ourselves,” he says. “Where do we come from?”
It’s not that there’s a real question that basic science has a broader impact. A 2018 study4 found that a US$10 million increase in funding for the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) led to an increase in private sector patents citing NIH work, says co-author study, Pierre Azoulay, who studies innovation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
Some fundamental research represents a benchmark in its field. Take four articles published in September5–8 describing the isolation of fossil fish from the Silurian period, more than 400 million years ago. Often only fragments of these fossils are discovered, but these were more intact and provided researchers with a more complete picture of the early evolution of jawed vertebrates.
Scientists spot a bizarre microbe that could help explain the rise of complex life
Fundamental discoveries can also be unexpected turning points. In 2020, a team carried out a detailed study of more than 20 transcription factors – proteins that can bind DNA and activate genes. Any distortion of the usual DNA-binding site of a particular transcription factor would be expected to negatively affect how the protein binds to DNA. However, researchers have found that such distortions sometimes enhance DNA-protein binding9, and in doing so provide insight into the energetics of protein-DNA interactions. It cannot be overemphasized that basic science takes time and patience. In 2020, five years after Ettema and colleagues reported their discovery of Asgard archaea by sequencing DNA in seawater, a separate group of researchers who had collected underwater samples near Japan revealed that they had become the first to grow such microbes in culture.ten.
But it had taken 10 years – from 2006 – for this team to grow Asgard’s archaea in large enough quantities to study them, meaning the researchers began their cultures even before the microbes had been identified. In fact, scientists were looking for ways to isolate microbes from the previously uncultivated depths, to explore the unknown. They painstakingly tended their cultures for years – many deep-sea microbes are accustomed to harsh conditions and scarce nutrients, and grow at an extremely slow rate – waiting to see what they would find.
Nature has been publishing curiosity-driven research for over 150 years, and readers won’t need to be convinced of the book’s value. But we implore our colleagues in the wider science ecosystem – policymakers and those in science funding agencies who expect to see direct benefits from research investments – to resist the temptation to seek returns fast. We are aware that the pressure in this direction will only increase as countries face economic recession and cost of living crises. But, as far as possible, this pressure must be resisted. Fundamental research must be able to prosper.
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