What are the top 5 “Grand Challenges” in biology?

I recently gave a presentation on two “Grand Challenges” in Biology. That event involved over 40 incoming freshman, and there were four of us who presented a total of 7 STEM Grand Challenges. I thought it worked really well (as I mentioned in my post last week), so I’m considering adapting it for a different recruitment event (also for incoming freshman) that I’m organizing. There isn’t time to cover all of the interesting, unsolved questions in biology, though, which has me wondering: what are the top 5 grand challenges in biology today?

The two challenges I presented at the earlier event come from this list. The two challenges I presented were: 1) linking genotype to phenotype, and understanding how the environment influences that link and 2) understanding biological diversity (its evolution, its maintenance, and the consequences of its loss). I think the students were really engaged*, especially in the second one. We started out talking about large scale biodiversity, but then I raised the topic of microbial diversity and what we’ve started to learn about links between the microbiome and human health and disease. Inevitably, this got us to fecal transplants, and, really, what better way to get a room’s attention than with those?🙂

A biochemist colleague presented a challenge that links biology and chemistry, on understanding the origins of life. This reminded me of learning about the classic Miller-Urey experiments as a freshman in college. As a freshman, it completely blew my mind to hear about the science behind this question, and especially to hear that people were doing experiments to study it. (Ed Yong has a really interesting write up on these experiments.) So, understanding the origin of life would definitely be one of my grand challenges.

A clear fourth challenge relates to understanding the brain – clearly this is a huge, very active area of research, and it’s also something that students will find really engaging. (It’s also one of the challenges on the list I linked to earlier.)

That leaves just one challenge. At the event I did recently, the students were really interested in questions related to sustainable agriculture, and you could argue for a grand challenge related to how to feed the planet sustainably. But that links with the biodiversity challenge above, so perhaps something else would be better as the fifth. The other key thing I’ve come up with relates to synthetic biology, though, again, I think that relates very closely to one of the earlier ones.

For the event that I’m planning, if I go with the Grand Challenges approach, I think I will go with:

  1. Linking phenotype to genotype
  2. Understanding biodiversity
  3. Origins of life
  4. Understanding the brain
  5. Sustainable agriculture

Part of my reason for going with sustainable ag for the fifth would be because there’s a strong group of people here working on topics related to sustainable food systems and because my experience with the earlier group suggests that they will find the topic really engaging. Part of the goal of this event is to link students to Biology on campus, so taking advantage of a strong group makes sense.

Thinking about this has been interesting for me, even if the 5 challenges that I settled on are very similar to the ones laid out here. And I’m curious: what do you think are the 5 grand challenges in biology that would be worth introducing to incoming college students? It also makes me wonder what would be on my list of 5 grand challenges in ecology. Clearly some of the above relate, but others don’t. But that topic will have to wait for another day…


* As further evidence of their engagement, last Thursday I did a follow up dinner with about 100 students, including the students who’d been there for the Grand Challenges presentation. Some of them were still asking me questions about it (in part because they were working on a follow-up 3 minute video on one of the challenges).

12 thoughts on “What are the top 5 “Grand Challenges” in biology?

  1. I love these types of lists because they help think about the big picture and how people with very different problems can come together. There is also often some hurdle that we just can’t seem to get over because of technical, scientific, or social reasons. Another one to consider might be antibiotic resistance because it integrates across agriculture, ecology, and medicine.

    What I like about your list (with the possible exception of #3) is that they can all be explored in a scientific, hypothesis-driven manner. When I think about teaching students and getting them excited about biology, it seems important to give a big problem where we can crack off a nugget and study it in a manner where we can make falsifiable predictions. More than teaching them about the big picture, it also teaches them how science is done.

    In contrast, some of the banter over on twitter is throwing out ideas like looking for extraterrestrial life. While this makes for great movies and plot lines, it is pretty hard for a biologist to credibly wrap their head around finding extraterrestrial life or demonstrating panspermia. It just isn’t falsifiable. For example, from today’s news, it’s pretty hard to read this with a straight face: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jul/06/philae-comet-could-be-home-to-alien-life-say-top-scientists. If we keep looking for 1000 years and still don’t find what we’re looking for, we can always come back and say we didn’t look hard enough. Of course there would be discoveries along the way, but we wouldn’t get any closer to solving the Grand Challenge.

    Thanks for the great post and getting the neurons firing this morning!

    • Hi Pat, just a quick note that the origin of life questions can definitely be approached in a scientific, hypothesis-driven way – Jack Szoztak’s lab (among others) is doing just incredible research examining the origin’s of life and I definitely see this as one of the great challenges.

    • Whether a proposition is falsifiable can depend on how the proposition is phrased. Some questions can be answered definitely “Yes,” but not definitely “No” (or vice versa).

      As you correctly point out, the hypothesis, “There is extraterrestrial life” is not falsifiable because the search space is infinite. But, the hypothesis, “There is NO extraterrestrial life,” is completely falsifiable. It would be falsified as soon as aliens landed on Parliament Hill or what have you.

  2. I’m no biologist, so bear in mind that my reply may not be the most well-informed. That said, here are my 5 grand challenges.

    1. Understanding the brain. After a brief stint as a graduate student in mental health counseling, I am amazed at how little we know about how our brains work. Clearly more work is required in this realm, and it’s undeniably interesting.
    2. Understanding biodiversity. We’re losing species at an alarming rate, and we need to know what the implications of that might be.
    3. Sustainable development. Similar to sustainable ag., but more broad. Finding ways to provide for human needs while minimizing the harm we cause to the environment are crucial.
    4. Everything about genetics. It’s just so much fun.
    5. How to cut across political, social, and cultural boundaries and motivate large and small-scale action to reduce biodiversity loss. This topic may have a heavy social science element, but it’s important. All the biological and ecological knowledge in the world won’t matter if we can’t get people to act on it. Furthermore, the current Republican/Democrat split in the US on environmental matters is of grave concern. Such issues are too important to be bogged down by partisan politics.

    • I would say more like a sociological problem. Farmers of 40 Centuries, published about 120 years ago, shows how organic agriculture has been done in East Asia for a very long time. Viable techniques are known (although biochar is a recently rediscovered one). What is lacking is the necessity for such sweaty work. That will come as the fossil fuel era fades.

  3. I would disagree concerning sustainable ag. Agriculture has transformed the globe… for example, the now extinct North American serengeti. I just completed a drive from the eastern plains of Colorado to Michigan, and lemme tell, the great corn biome is thriving!

    The scientific organization I work for (Edwin James Society) has made development of sustainable ag one of our core programs. Biodiversity is collapsing for a variety of reasons, but by far & away, agriculture is at the top of the list. I am pleased as punch Meg included this topic in her orientation for new students. Not only is this topic crucial for preservation of biodivsity, but you can sure as heck bet it will be a very lucrative career going forward.

    In 2013, I attended the Colorado Capitol Conference in DC. I interacted with many mambers of Obama’s cabinet, including DOD folk. The numero uno expenditure for the DOD is climate-related. And that is based on the assumption global food production and markets will collapse in the wake of climate change.

    It’s coming, and it’s coming fast.

  4. Why would we stop at sustainable agriculture? The grand challenge that every single human being faces is living sustainably on a finite planet. Is this not the Grand Challenge to top all sectorial Grand Challenges?

    • Its true the earth’s resources are finite. Its doubtful – as Dr Ehrlich discovered – that the end of earths resources is in the forseeable future. In the last few years peak oilers have relearned the Ehrlich lesson: resource a abundance is a function of technology and economics, not one of geological volumes or ecological carrying capacities.

      From the food perspective, everything today points to continuing the ridiculous abundance we currently live with. The only threat are the folks who fear technology and wish to drive us backward into inferior ancient technologies under the pretense that ancient technology is somehow more “natural” than modern technology. Remember: all farming is an expression of technology. There is no such thing as a “natural” farming method.

      • Correct me if I’m wrong but I think what is meant here by sustainable agriculture is sustainable technology, as opposed to unsustainable technology. This needs to take environmental pressures into account through e.g. a LCA, and this is where ecologists can contribute. As well as working “with” nature instead of “against” nature in agriculture, to the extent profitable at least.

  5. I believe sustainable v. unsustainable agriculture is context specific. Is it, for example, sustainable during extreme droughts, floods, fires, disease outbreaks or locust explosions? Probably not.

    However you could rightly argue short term events do not define long term sustainability. With climate change events such as these will become permanent where they have been only episodic. Then what do we do?

    I believe sustainable agriculture also implies to some extent self-sustaining. The plants & animals are, for the most part, able to sustain themselves with little to no human intervention. Thus, these plants & animals are well adapted to the environments where they occur. There are many examples of this kind of farming.

    Ginseng in central Wisconsin, prickly pear cactus in Texas, pecans in Alabama. These commodities are actively farmed, but require virtually nothing in terms of irrigation, fertilizers & pesticides.

    Would you like an ideal solution to feeding human populations AND benefiting the environment? Then let’s transition to a diet composed entirely of invasive species:


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