Many Paths of Discovery

Having an applied research goal can no doubt lend focus to the discovery process. For example, since its inception the charge of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center here on campus, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, has been to realize the grand vision of a biorefinery—the bioenergy version of the petroleum refinery. If we’re investigating biomass as a source of material that we’re going to get products from, we need to understand both how it’s put together and how to take it apart.

This quest has generated discoveries great and small, including CALS biochemistry professor John Ralph’s groundbreaking work in technologies to take apart lignin, a particularly tough compound in plant cell walls.

But pioneering discoveries don’t always happen with a specific application in mind—or applications are later found that are bigger and bolder than the researcher could originally conceive of. Take, for example, the late CALS
genetics professor Ray Owen’s investigation of twin calves with different fathers that somehow were able to tolerate carrying each other’s differing blood cells—a mix that often triggers a severe immunological reaction. But when blood cells are exchanged early in development, Owen learned, each twin learns to tolerate the other’s cells.

By asking questions about a common occurrence in cattle, Owen had discovered the phenomenon of immune tolerance, which sparked a revolution in immunology and laid the foundation for the successful transplantation of human organs. His findings, published in 1945, paved the way for research involving induction of immune tolerance to transplanted tissue grafts by Frank Burnet and Peter Medawar. When those scientists received the Nobel Prize for that work in 1960, they noted it was Owen’s discovery that had set them on their way.

For another example, fast-forward to the present and consider the research of plant pathologist Aurélie Rakotondrafara, highlighted in our Grow cover story. While pursuing a basic science question—how plant viruses reproduce—she happened upon a very useful tool: a stretch of genetic material in a plant virus, known as an “IRES,” that is powerful at “recruiting” the plant’s natural machinery for making proteins.

It turns out there are huge biotech applications for this finding. “Rakotondrafara wasn’t looking for a more efficient tool to make proteins, but the IRES she found is perfect for it,” notes Jennifer Gottwald, a technology officer at the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which is working on a patent for this discovery.

That’s the excitement of scientific curiosity—and the best reason why we place such high value on both basic and applied research. One feeds into the other, and we cannot fully know the potential outcomes of discoveries we make today. We actively foster this curiosity about how living things work because the fruits of research are boundless, and often yield tremendous unexpected gifts along the way.