At most large research universities, there are two or more biology departments. At my undergraduate institution UC Berkeley it was Molecular and Cell Biology and Integrative Biology, with many biologists also in the Environmental Science, Policy, and Management Department. At my graduate institution CU Boulder it was Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. I don’t know the history of these departments, but in some cases I’m sure there were splits, or perhaps in other cases, departments coalesced from older disciplines such as bacteriology and zoology. At my current institution, UTEP, there is still a united Biological Sciences department, which is one of the things that got me thinking about this issue.
Today, these departments are kept apart for a few reasons. First, the gap in the scale of study systems can lead to disinterest in work on the “other side” of biology. If you study plant ecology, its can seem difficult to get anything relevant out of a talk on something like neuroscience. Second, there is a structural difference in funding sources: NIH vs. NSF. If you are doing human biology, you are looking at NIH funding and if you are doing non-human biology, NSF is your go-to agency. The different missions of these agencies are accompanied by cultural differences and career-path differences which can reinforce the gap between molecular/cell biology and ecology/evolutionary biology.
Lately though, I have noticed something interesting happening. As genetic and omics-style techniques become popular in both major branches of biology, the gap between the two biologies has narrowed. Ecologists and evolutionary biologists are reaching for molecular biology and and genetics tools more than ever to understand the underpinnings of non-human organisms and ecosystems. Biomedical researchers are realizing that due to the microbiome, the human body is in fact an ecosystem with phylogenetic diversity, ecological interactions, and the exchange of energy and nutrients among microbes.
Both biologies are making extensive use of omics-style methods. As an ecologist, I am wanting to understand which microbes contain genes that code for key enzymes that break down soil organic matter. I also want to get a better chemical sense of aqueous chemistry in soils, an endeavor that may culminate in metabolomics-type approaches. At the same time that soil ecologists are hunting for genes that control biogeochemical transformations in soils, cancer biologists are replacing an organ and tissue-based system of cancer classification with a system based on gene mutations. Using these gene-based approaches, both groups of biologists are trying to process bigger data sets, and are further tied together by bioinformatics.
To me this convergence of questions and methods is profound in that it underscores the importance of the key tenets in biology. The uniting principle of biology is the evolution of life through natural selection of self-replicating genes that are organized into a diverse suite of organisms. This idea and paradigm is so powerful that it can apparently pull diverging fields of inquiry back together after they have drifted apart.
I’m not arguing that subdisciplines won’t remain distinct, or that these departmental boundaries will disappear, or even that the funding rift is going anywhere anytime soon. However, I do believe that now is a great time to walk across campus and check in with your colleagues in the “other side” of biology.