Some of the greatest breakthroughs in science were made by accident. Penicillin, X-rays, and plastics were discovered by curious minds in the pursuit of something other than their objective in the laboratory.
The curiosity-driven scientific quests are vital to continue to make discoveries and innovations, writes a scientist whose main course of study is a virus which is at the brink of global eradication, today in the latest PLOS Pathogens.
Julie Pfeiffer, a microbiologist at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, said that even though polio has ceased to be a massive global killer since Jonas Salk developed the first successful vaccine for the disease in the 1950s, the virus has nonetheless proven to be a major research tool: a tamed virus which shows how some of its more-dangerous cousins can be better understood and treated.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to find my work on a politician-generated list of ‘ridiculous, wasteful,’ research projects,” she writes. “But I hope that there will always ben support for scientists that ‘geek out’ over fruit flies, worms, years, or nearly eradicated viruses.”
The polio virus has demonstrated to scientists the value of a “sloppy replication strategy,” like a fast typist hammering a typewriter without spellcheck. That strategy has proven to allow mutations that have benefited viral adaptation and survival, writes Pfeiffer, who made the replication discovery early in her career.
Further research on similar viruses like chinkungunya has led to possible vaccine strategies, she adds.
More recently, the poliovirus has shown its aptitude to stick to bacteria, in Pfeiffer’s laboratory. That discovery has been further explored in mouse mammary tumor virus – and is being explored in correlation with human gut bugs, like norovirus.
Such science would not be possible without researchers taking a hard look at subjects like polio, which are not the biggest danger to human health, Pfeiffer writes.
“The value of model system and curiosity-driven basic science research is immense, but we often fail to convey this to the general public, to those in political office, and even to other scientists. Some scientists put a premium on clinical or translational relevance,” she adds.
The United States has been polio-free for 30 years, due to vaccination efforts. In 1988, there were roughly 350,000 cases worldwide. But last year just 37 cases were reported worldwide in 2016, according to the World Health Organization. Global officials have estimated that the vaccination efforts that started in the second half of the 20th century spared some 16 million people from paralysis to date.