50 Voices of the Future: Lin Chao on understanding evolution


In honor of UC San Diego Extension's first 50 years, 50 Voices of the Future asks thought leaders about the trends, breakthroughs and social advances they foresee over the next 50 years.

Dr. Lin Chao has devoted his life to the study of evolution. His research on how oxidation can damage and age bacteria has lead to a greater understanding of how and why aging has evolved in human beings. Dr. Chao works as an evolutionary biologist at UC San Diego’s Section of Ecology, Behavior and Evolution.

(1) Why is the work you do important?

Just like a car, which oxidizes, our body also reacts with oxygen and that often will cause damage to our cells. Those damages will accumulate over a lifetime and will cause us to become less and less vigorous. We call that aging. The fact that bacteria also experience that has led to a development of another system that we can use to examine how living things deal with such forms of challenges from the environment.

We look at the effect of oxidative damage on bacteria. We look at the damage on the cells. The reason why damage to cells is important is we believe that a lot of aging, including human aging, is related to wear and tear and the insults of the world and the damage that it may have done to our own bodies or the cells in our own body. Oxidation is a form of damage that’s very, very common. By looking at the phenomenon in bacteria, which is where we study, a bacterium called E. coli, we can use it as a model for understanding how a cell would survive and deal with damage leading to perhaps an understanding of how aging happens in humans.

(2) What are the influential/exciting developments happening in your field now and why?

I’m interested in how evolution has shaped bacteria to handle these damages from oxidation. What’s been very interesting for this field is that biology, as well as many of the scientific so-called STEM areas – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – now have become much more interactive, integrating, for example, physics, computational sciences, and biology. Using that, now, as a unified approach, we call that systems biology, to study biological phenomena. Systems biology turns out to be ideal for studying evolution in such bacterial populations.

(3) What’s the next big thing?

Well, the next big thing is that, hopefully, we put together these approaches and come up with ways of looking at things that we could not do before; in the past, biology worked in isolation from physics, and physics worked in isolation from biology. And now, computer sciences can integrate everything, to basically enhance the power of the joint approaches.

(4) How big of an impact will your field play in shaping the future of the San Diego region and beyond?

San Diego is a very attractive place to a lot of retirees, because the weather is so nice. Retirees tend to be of more advanced age and aging becomes an issue that we all deal with. In that sense, I think that’s how our work could potentially become relevant to the health of such people, to how medicine would approach handling aging of cells in human beings and so on.

(5) Hop into your time machine…what does the future look like for this field in 50 years? How can individuals/companies get prepared for what’s next?

Science is changing because the information age has now made it easy to disseminate it to everyone. All this new information – data, concepts, ideas – now are fed into this vast network that’s available to the general public on the Internet. Very easily, you can go up and do a search and you can find and read papers that my lab or other labs have published. I would like to think that in the next 50 years, we will generate a highly educated public that will use this information to make better choices, wiser decisions about health, food, diet and so forth.

I study evolution in biological organisms, and I find it very curious that 50 percent of the American public does not believe in evolution. I would like to see in the next 50 years, because of this dissemination of information, that percentage go up to 90, 95 or 99 percent, so that we have a public that more assimilates these scientific ideas generated through research to improve their own lives.

Dr. Chao has presented at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UC San Diego as well as his work at UC San Diego. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UC San Diego is a membership program for adults over the age of 50 who want to take part in intellectually stimulating learning opportunities throughout the year.

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