“AJ branch-off edition” is a category of articles which past published in “Acaric Journal”, a career magazine for graduate students and researchers published by Acaric Co., Ltd., or fresh articles only available on the web. This time, we bring you the articles from vol.1.
After conducting basic research as a biophysicist, Dr. Noji first became involved with engineering researchers from different fields when he joined a research institute as an independent researcher, and he experienced culture shock between fields of study. Dr. Noji is now working on bioanalytical technology and social implementation, but at the core of his work is a genuine curiosity about living organisms, and he believes that it is important to be clear about his curiosity and what he wants to solve when interacting with different fields.
– Please tell us about your research theme.
I am currently working on a wide range of research topics, but the question that I consistently pursue is: “How can the state of ‘being alive’ be expressed in the language of physics and chemistry?” I think this is the common goal of researchers in the field of biophysics to which I belong.
I think most people agree that the smallest unit of being “alive” is the cell. However, each individual biomolecule is “not alive”. How many and in what ways should they be gathered together to be called “alive”? So, I wonder, what is the gap between “alive” and “not alive”?
When we want to understand an object or a system, not only in biology, we start with an observation and analysis. When looking at an ecosystem, the first step is to classify the species that make up the system, and then observe and analyze the behavior and relationships of each species. The same applies to the study of cells. When we analyze them in this way, we tend to mistakenly believe that biomolecules are rationally designed because they are so well made. However, in fact, they are not necessarily rational, and it should be obvious that other designs are possible. I think that the design of the earth-like organisms and biomolecules we see in front of us today should not be viewed as something that had to be done, but as one of the possible solutions.
The more we observe and analyze, the more details we can discover, but we don’t know if those details are really the essential properties. This is why we need to take a “make and test” approach. However, in biology, it is still very difficult to take the “make and understand” approach. I myself started out mainly with an analytical approach, and I am proud to say that I have led the world in research using single molecule measurement technology. Now, I would like to try to redesign ATP synthase based on this knowledge.
– Are medical treatment and drug discovery the main areas of relevance in the industry?
I am currently working on the development of new bioanalytical technologies and their implementation in society, such as virus detection, but my approach is not to develop them strategically with the aim of making them useful to the world from the beginning. I wanted to study ATP synthase, and my motivation was to confine a single molecule in a small space and analyze its function accurately.
I developed a very small reactor technology, which was surprisingly easy to use, and I thought it could be used for other purposes than ATP synthase, so I tried it out and it went very well. When I published the results, I had never had any connection with companies before, but suddenly I was contacted by many companies.
Now, for example, we are developing an ultra-sensitive antigen test reagents in collaboration with Abbott, a global company that is the world’s largest in the market of clinical diagnostic reagents such as immunoassays. Naturally, this technology can also be used for ultra-sensitive detection of new coronaviruses. I developed a similar technology in principle and used it to detect influenza viruses, which was also successful, and a member of my team started a company to work on it.
I feel that science policy is a little too top-down these days. In addition to refinement and deepening, I think it is important for academia to keep coming up with new seeds starting from entirely different ideas and approaches. It is also possible to take a more egoistic stance and simply say, “Because it’s interesting.”
– Did you have this way of thinking when you were a student?
No, I did not. When starting my career in the first place, I was so desperate to survive in academia that I did not have time to think about such things. I struggled to get my degree, experienced post-doctoral work, and became independent. At that time, I was also desperately working on new research and gradually getting results in new projects.… A little after I became independent, I had time to reflect on my research and began to think about things like the ones I mentioned earlier.
It was in 2001 that I started my laboratory, as I took a position as an assistant professor at the Institute of Industrial Science, the University of Tokyo (hereafter referred to as “IIS”). It was right after I proved that ATP synthase, an enzyme molecule, is a nano-motor that spins and rotates with chemical energy. It was quite a culture shock for me that engineering researchers surrounded me for the first time. They explained as if they had been engaged in research to meet the needs of society from the beginning. When I talked to them, it turned out that their curiosity was actually at the core of their research. I think it was this experience that led me to the idea that “It is okay to start from curiosity after all.”
At that time, there were some barriers to entry, such as the different vocabulary used in different fields. Still, I interacted with many researchers of the same generation, so it was easy to discuss things without discernment. Naturally, we did not know each other’s basic knowledge, so we deepened our mutual understanding through exchanges of “What is that?” and “Oh, I’ll tell you if you don’t know that.” That is an essential prerequisite for the successful fusion of different fields.
People strongly recommend fusions of different fields, but I feel uncomfortable making the fusion of academic areas itself the objective. Scientists need to have a concrete image in their minds of the question and what is required to solve it. The opposite is true for an engineering position. When approached by a scientist, I ask, “What is your question? Is it the question you need to address? Does my technology provide a solution for you?” If you are unclear about what you want, you aren’t expanding your antennae even if you think you are. Ultimately, I think the basic premise is to what extent you understand your problems.