The aim of biological research isn’t always to improve our lives or the lives of future generations. My work seeks to understand how species change over the course of time, in order to better comprehend our past and imagine our future. I often experience great moments of joy during my research, when a new idea springs up and completely illuminates my understanding of the living world. For example, when I realized that each human being isn’t made up of assembly of simple elements, like a computer, but is the result of the continuing transformation of living organisms which began with life on earth, almost 3 billion years ago. Even today, thinking about this makes my head spin. Or when my team was able to show that the Drosophila pachea fly, that lives only on cacti, has become dependent on this plant thanks to mutations which have allowed it to better survive in this environment.
The results obtained by various laboratories over the last few years have shown that the routes that evolution can take are not as numerous as we might have thought. For example, the adaptation to a starch-rich diet was triggered by the modification of the same gene in both humans and dogs. If the evolutionary process was entirely random, we would not be able to observe so many repetitions. With my team, I am trying to decipher the connections between genes and the visible characteristics of living creatures. Our current state of knowledge is so advanced that we often know exactly which gene needs to be modified in order to achieve such and such visible modification. The new CRISPR-Cas-9 technology allows researchers to rapidly and accurately transfer certain characteristics to domestic animals, without having to create mutations that are randomly distributed in the genome. The potential ethical problems posed by CRISPR-Cas-9 are enormous, and I continually try to educate the public during conferences, debates, radio interviews or on Twitter. I believe that the work of a researcher isn’t simply to make new discoveries, but also to share our passion and our vision of the world with everyone, and to intervene when our knowledge can help resolve certain issues in society.
- Virginie Courtier-Orgogozo