When I was young, I dug up potatoes and picked tomatoes for a friend of my grandfather's. The old farmer would sometimes say "there's always something more to learn about tomatoes." He'd talk to everyone he knew about tomatoes. Occasionally, someone actually did have something to say about tomatoes. For a hilarious fictionalized version of this true story, check out this youtube clip (In an effort to at least keep up the appearance of professionalism, I won't embed the video here...)
This apparently boring tale was brought to the surface of my memory by an editorial in this week's Nature, "More than lip service," (subscription) which offers a few insights on biologists working with physicists and the increasing demand for such research. The last paragraph reads:
If cell biologists are truly to engage physicists and vice versa, a better sense that both are in this ride together is necessary. The papers mentioned above involve exploring physical forces acting on a cellular scale. Marrying those measurable physical forces to cellular chemistry in a meaningful way promises to push biology far beyond today's biochemistry. It is a challenge that could engage research for decades. And physics, in particular, is needed more than ever.
The papers that the article refers to as "papers mentioned above" include this one on experiments on the structure single biomolecules, among others. It's reassuring that biologists and physicists realize the importance of what is actually happening down there in the tiny world of cell physiology.
It's exciting to hope that one day the physics of a living cell will be so well understood that it could be modeled by a collection of microfluidic devices and MEMS. As biology comes closer to understanding what's going on and physics comes closer to reproducing what's going on, all of science is coming closer to an extraordinary breakthrough. These artificial cells might one day replace damaged blood or brain cells to help treat diseases such as sickle cell anemia or Alzheimer's. It may be cliché to say, but the possibilities are endless.
I think there's a point too, where insight offered by economists, epidemiologists, and statisticians could become useful to researchers as well.
The future of nanomachines might rest on what the janitor observes when he takes out the garbage (maybe it's attacking him?), or the future of tomato crops everywhere could depend on an idea from a farmer in rural Ohio. Scientists can't be so arrogant to think that a farmer couldn't teach him or her something new about how a tomato grows.