Published: Jan. 20, 2012

Faculty conversations: Robert Root-Bernstein

Contact(s): Erica Shekell Office of Communications and Brand Strategy

Robert Root-Bernstein is a professor of physiology, which is the study of the functions of organisms and their parts. He also studies evolution and the origin of life. He works in a lab, but also collaborates with an art professor to do public demonstrations of science experiments at science and art museums and galleries.

“When I was in graduate school, I was told that in order to succeed in life, I was going to have to focus and only do one thing for the rest of my life — ‘become a specialist!’” he said. “I’ve always been pretty much a generalist. You can even see from the kinds of research I do.”

Root-Bernstein will be speaking about some of his research at the annual meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Science — the largest general scientific society in the world — which will be held Feb. 16-20 in Vancouver, Canada.

He will be speaking about his origin-of-life research; specifically, his work tracing the evolution of the building blocks of life, which are found today in every organism from a human to a bacterium.

"I look for how do we evolve, say, glucose regulation systems. Very important for understanding diabetes," he said. "We found some very interesting things, such as that there are very small glucose binding sequences which occur in all proteins and all peptides like insulin that regulate blood glucose.

"And it doesn’t matter where in the body, or whether we’re looking at a human being or whether we’re looking at a bacterium — they all use the same basic little tiny modules," he said.

He has been using approaches from other scientific fields and applying them to evolution. For example, some people have said that it is impossible to examine the evolution of bacteria because there are many parts, and too many different possible arrangements of these parts. But by applying a concept of grouping some of the parts into modules and then arranging the modules — an idea developed by Herbert Simon, who won a Nobel prize in economics in 1978 — one could feasibly try all of these different permutations, Root-Bernstein said.

Root-Bernstein breaks other boundaries — the boundary between art and science. He and Adam W. Brown, an associate professor of art, have been re-creating some of the classic experiments on the origin of life.

"We do it in public, which is even more fun, because we’re teaching people about evolution and science and making them think about art at the same time," Root-Bernstein said.

"Unfortunately in science, we tend to be very focused. They're supposed to be very well-controlled experiments; you're always supposed to know what you're going to get," he said. "But most of the breakthroughs in science occur when somebody goes and tries something that’s crazy, a little bit off the wall, out of the mainstream."


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Robert Root-Bernstein, physiology professor. Photo by G.L. Kohuth

Robert Root-Bernstein, physiology professor. Photo by G.L. Kohuth

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