The other “left behind”…and roads not taken, yet converging

It’s funny to look back and see how various paths in your life actually played out (or, in one case, didn’t play out). When I was an undergrad in the 1980s, I majored in microbiology (technically Microbiology and Immunology). I think my favorite course by far in college was infectious diseases. It amazed and impressed me how those teeny little microbes could hijack human (and other) bodies, wreaking physiological and physical havoc on much larger systems.

But in one of my academic counseling sessions, the faculty member told me there really wasn’t going to be much of a path for infectious disease research. With antibiotics and vaccinations, we had a lot of it under control. And he thought that it was going to be hard to get funding for that research in the future. Sure, in the developing world there were still needs and important projects…but you have to think about how hard it is to fund that work. It wasn’t said explicitly, but it was clear that pharmaceutical research was largely aimed at the diseases and afflictions of insured/wealthy white guys… It was a pragmatic bit of advice, certainly–and I loved the later projects I was on as well, but I’m a little bit sorry I didn’t take that path anyway. Soon after, AIDS research flourished. Bioterrorism became heated and funded. And now we have the infectious-disease promotion movement (anti-vaxxers) working hard to return us to sad–and costly–levels of exposures even within the US. Alas.

The E. coli drama in Germany has also been compelling to me. Again, the physical toll and financial havoc this bug is causing is astounding. But it also reminded me of the path I didn’t take. But there was a convergence too–because of the state of science blogging and the involvement of genomics, I could have a seat near the front as the analysis ensued: both the official and the unofficial.

But something struck me about the BGI sequencing of the samples: in the past, that work would have been done elsewhere. And by elsewhere I mean somewhere like Atlanta, at the CDC. I mean, it doesn’t really affect the outcome who sequences it–I applaud the ginormous engine of the BGI for doing this so quickly and releasing the information to everyone as they did. As a recent story in Newsweek described, BGI Shenzhen is World’s Largest Sequencing Facility. They were prepared minds on this.

It just struck me as a missed opportunity for the U.S. The U.S. could have had the world’s largest sequencing facility. But that would have required support from the U.S. infrastructure–some of it public, some of it private. I was just somewhat saddened that we were left behind on this. That it’s a road we aren’t taking. The way we do science today we’ll still have access to the data, and there are a lot of good things about distributing the work around the world. But a piece of me wonders if we’ll be sorry about it in some ways. There are consequences for not supporting science and technology research.

But we chose not to invest in that, and someone else did. Alas.


Image credit: thanks to the CDC public image library for this E. coli, image 10577 by Janice Haney Carr.