Mind to Market

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Bombs and the Bees

In an effort to solve the mystery of what is causing bees to spontaneously die off around the country; scientists from two distinctly different disciplines have joined forces; entomologists and military scientists. I am always fascinated at how groups in dissimilar fields can connect to find solutions to problems. Not necessarily how they would work once they have found they have shared goals, but what got them together in the first place. In most cases scientific and technical disciplines become very insular; a strategy designed to focus on predefined goals and exclude extraneous influences from disrupting the process. All too often we see that another group has solved a similar problem or has the makings of a solution but the groups have no visibility of one another due to the lack of cross disciplinary communication.

In the case of the bees, entomologists have been focused on finding some pathogen that could be the cause of the bees' plight; Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The process of finding a unique protein in the bees' tissues is like finding a needle in a haystack, a haystack the size of Montana. But the good news is that the technology that can find this protein does exist, it's just not sitting in every entomologist's lab. Enter the U.S. Army. Just so happens that they do have this kind of technology sitting in their lab, intended to be used to quickly find harmful pathogens in solders. It was new, so new that they had yet to try it out in the field. In lieu of sick solders, bees would do quite nicely.

So the Army gathered up the dead bees and ran them through their machine and found the guilty virus. But how did the Montana entomologists ever get hooked up to the Army team on battlefield diseases in the first place? Reading journal articles, attending conferences, searching the Internet? Nope. The brother of one of the Army researchers, a tech entrepreneur, saw an interview of a bee expert on television. He then called his brother and set up a meeting. Good old fashion family connections.

I am all for serendipitous meetings, it is always exciting and to discover previously unknown mutual interests. But I can't help but wonder what if we could coax the process along, maybe remove a few barriers to the chance meetings. This is the idea behind the VIVO project that I blogged about last month. The challenges of staying abreast of developments in a single scientific discipline are indeed daunting; to ask scientists to keep up with developments in multiple disciplines is impractical. If there were a system that could perform this task, like the TV watching brother, this may remove some of the barriers that currently exist.

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