The critical role of natural history in advancing biomedical science through reciprocal illumination
Natural history, especially ecology, has played a key, but undervalued role in the development of genetic model organisms for biomedical science. At the same time, genetic model organisms have been downplayed as systems for identifying fundamental principles in ecology and evolution. The advent of new genome sequencing technology and analytical tools in ecologically compelling non-model organisms and an increasing desire by biomedical scientists to step outside the boundaries of traditional model organisms to study molecular, cellular and developmental biology, is allowing for historically disparate fields to intersect. I explore why and how this phenomenon is occurring and its implications for biology.
First, through the lens of natural history, I highlight how model systems have facilitated and illuminated major discoveries in biomedical science. Second, natural history is playing a major role in the identification of novel gene function through the principle of reciprocal illumination: biomedical scientists are increasingly using natural evolutionary experiments (comparative biology) to gain a broader perspective on the function of genes. Approaches from evolutionary biology are in turn being used in conjunction with advances in biomedical science to link variation in gene function with variation in phenotype and ultimately, fitness. A more integrative approach to studying biology is therefore within reach, but integration poses special challenges in training of future biologists.