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'Oddball science' has proven worth, say UMass Amherst biologists
Date:2/27/2014

AMHERST, Mass. Scoffing at or cutting funds for basic biological research on unusual animal adaptations from Gila monster venom to snail sex, though politically appealing to some, is short-sighted and only makes it more likely that important economic and social benefits will be missed in the long run, say a group of evolutionary biologists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Writing in a recent issue of BioScience, researchers Patricia Brennan, Duncan Irschick, Norman Johnson and Craig Albertson argue that "innovations often arise from unlikely sources" and "reducing our ability to creatively examine unique biological phenomena will ultimately harm not only education and health but also the ability to innovate, a major driver of the global economy."

First author Patricia Brennan, known for her duck genitalia studies that could eventually aid human medical science points out, "Basic science has increasingly come under attack, and there is a growing perception that studying 'odd' science ideas with no clear societal benefits should be stopped. But we feel that these are the precise sorts of investigations that may lead to major innovations in biomedicine, technology and military applications."

She and colleagues point to several specific examples where advances in understanding basic biological evolutionary adaptations led to successful technological applications, sometimes decades after the original work. Without basic work first published in 1967 on the enzyme Taq polymerase, for example, science wouldn't have the immensely powerful DNA replication technique known as polymerase chain reaction, PCR, now providing "vast benefits" in medicine, agriculture and criminal justice.

A recent invention from UMass Amherst underscores the value of basic science, the authors add. After more than 50 years of basic research on gecko ecology and the remarkable anatomy that allows these lizards to walk up smooth wall
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Contact: Janet Lathrop
jlathrop@admin.umass.edu
413-545-0444
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Source:Eurekalert  

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