Scientific discovery and the value of collaboration

Posted by  chandni —November 25, 2008
Filed in Anecdotes, Collaboration

Scientists in Iowa recently reported a breakthrough discovery. They successfully identified the gene (PRICKLE1) which when mutated causes epilepsy. There’s two things amazing about this discovery

  • PRICKLE1 is unique in that it has never been associated with any other disease.
  • The project involved two dozen institutions across 6 countries and collaboration played an important role.

Dr Bassuk (the lead author) found that whether on-campus or international, collaboration was essential to the success of the research study.

“By sharing and analyzing data sets, we realized there was a common mutation in the PRICKLE1 gene in the family members with this form of epilepsy,” Bassuk said.

To verify that the mutation might be related to the epilepsy, the team needed to test it in an animal model. This next step to find a suitable animal model involved a surprising coincidence: Bassuk, who had only recently joined the UI, realized through online research that the PRICKLE1 gene in zebrafish had been previously identified by another University of Iowa researcher, Diane Slusarki, Ph.D., associate professor of biology in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“I walked across the river to Diane’s side of campus, and we designed an experiment to test the human mutation in the zebrafish,” Bassuk said. It was ‘Iowa luck.'”…

“We never could have done, or could continue to do this type of research, with just one person thinking about it,” he said. “From the clinicians who found and took histories on the study participants, to antibody testing at Stanford University to DNA shared from colleagues in Japan, the study required a lot of collaboration and coordination…”

Read full story here.

What is it that makes it easy for scientists to collaborate?

  • Passion or an area of expertise they are identified with
  • Dealing with the unknown – so you know you don’t have all the answers
  • Knowing who would be interested/can be contacted
  • Ability to connect easily – they all have profile pages these days and publish their work

Are there other factors?

About  chandni


  1. Nerida Hart says:

    Chandni – this is a great case study – thanks for pointing it out – I think scientists actually are willing to work together to find a common result – perhaps the bureaucrats need to think more like scientists 😎

  2. Chandni says:

    You’re spot on right, Nerida.
    Having studied Molecular Biology, I know that science stems from a belief that something is possible or can be, we just need to dig deeper to find out. I like the bit where the researcher just walked across the lake and found his collaborator.
    To think of it, bureaucrats can do that so easily. It’s such a large network at their disposal. They just need to develop a comfort level with a) not having all the answers and b) looking for people who may be able to help them find the answers.

  3. Matt Moore says:

    I’m not sure that scientists do find it easy to collaborate.
    I would suspect that when they do:
    – They have a common goal.
    – They have a common language and are able to develop a shared understanding of the problem.
    – Barriers to collaboration are low – e.g. your institution doesn’t discourage you from doing it.
    – There are problems that are too big for one group to solve.
    One critical thing is that scientists make their reputations by public publication of their research – this is rarely the case for bureaucrats / managers.
    My memory is that there’s as much competition as collaboration in science (and this is not necessarily a bad thing).
    Some more comments here:

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