1. Biology is a science. It can be defined as all of human knowledge acquired in a specific field. It began with "zero" knowledge and moves towards a sort of "absolute" knowledge… and is now somewhere on the long, difficult path leading to this absolute.
2. This science studies living beings. Living beings are composed of cells. The path leading to this knowledge must pass through the following stages:
- discovery of the existence of cells;
- understanding how cells work;
- understanding how the body works;
- ideas on health and sickness;
- different types of diseases, etc.
3. Things must happen in the above-mentioned order because it's hard to see how we could understand cell function if we don't know cells exist, how we could understand the function of an organism (set of cells with the same nucleus) without understanding how cells work, etc.
4. Our idea of cell function will therefore condition, in large part, any approach we may have to biology. For example, it's hard to see how a biology teacher could give a valid lesson, or how a researcher working in cancer research could really achieve effective results, if their basic knowledge of cell function is lacking or far from reality.
5. Logically, and without being a great specialist in the subject, we therefore suppose that our experts, whether researchers or teachers, do all they can to understand what really happens in cells. This is the context in which the following little story should be understood.
6. In 1958, General de Gaulle was recalled to power. In autumn '62 the most urgent problems having been dealt with (France had a new constitution and Algeria had gained its independence in July), so he could finally implement the policy he had been dreaming of for France… a national policy based on an ambitious programme of industrialisation and research.
7. In the research sector, this policy was reflected in the allocation of large amounts of credit, which would, for example, allow the INRA (National Institute of Agricultural Research) plant physiopathology laboratory in Dijon to increase its workforce from nine in 1964 to 27 in 1968, and to move to entirely new, fully equipped premises.
8. However, this was a long-term policy and it was expensive. To have a chance of succeeding, it had to gain the approval of the people. The General thought that, ideally, it would be good for France to win a Nobel prize in a scientific field, a Nobel prize which must be given all the merit it would deserve. So he sent a representative to Stockholm to explain the situation… The message was clearly heard because, in autumn 1965, three researchers at the Pasteur Institute received the Nobel prize for Medicine and Physiology, for work done in the particularly complex field of gene regulation.
9. This work revealed a whole series of structures and phenomena which nobody had even imagined could exist before then: operons, operators, genes and repressor proteins, operator-repressor complexes, operator-inducer complexes, etc. These discoveries all led to the belief that the time was not far off when we would finally understand what is really going on in cells, with the spin-offs you can imagine relative to body function, knowledge of health and disease, the fight against cancer, etc. A new biology was born, full of immense hope: molecular biology.
10. The reception given to this Nobel prize in all France fully met all expectations. As it was recently reported in GEO: "In 1965, three French scientists went into the history books for explaining the mysteries of gene regulation". The General's plan succeeded beyond all hopes. The journey was under way. Now it was up to the scientists to show what they were capable of. "We don't need researchers" said the General in 1967, "we need finders".
11. In the early 1970s, everything seemed to be going well for the physiopathology laboratory mentioned earlier. Some work, in particular, studying the mode of action of plant hormones in host/parasite relations, showed that:
- hormones, or more accurately some hormones, play an essential part in cell regulation processes;
- balance and regulation are two aspects of the same problem (plant evolution is directly linked to the evolution of precise hormonal balance);
- everything in biology could be boiled down to a question of balance in the narrowest sense of the word.
12. There was just one small problem: these conclusions didn't have much to do with the ones stated previously and which had contributed so much to the reputation of the French science community. The reception they were given was mixed, to put it mildly:
- either the scientists called on to give their opinion before publication considered the conclusions to be false, the recent Nobel prize awarded to France demonstrating this clearly enough;
- or they considered that there was every chance that the conclusions were correct, but had simply been reached either ten years too late or ten years too soon, and publication at the time was unthinkable: you don't attack a legend.
13. Short-term result: At the request of the laboratory director, the Director General of the INRA decided to bring this work to a halt and the researcher who performed it (who did not appreciate this policy one bit) was dismissed for a reason which could not be questioned: "the contract signed had led to the completion of work concerning both parties".
14. Current situation: Weeks, months and years have passed. This idea that hormones play a part in controlling gene activity grew slowly in peoples' minds. In every respectable high school or faculty, however, teachers continued to give lessons based on other explanations which had been recorded in the history books. Each one tried to reconcile all this piecemeal data in the best way possible, the end result resembling more a kind of salad than an actual synthesis.
15. Future prospects: At this rate it can be imagined that in twenty, thirty or forty years time, we shall finally understand that wanting to mix oil and water at all costs does not gain anything and, going back to the idea that balance and regulation are two aspects of the same problem, could finally lead to a successful resolution of many of these problems which have cost the taxpayer such a lot while ruining his life: cancer for example. Poor General, is that what he dreamed of for?