There are around 20,000 human protein-coding genes, but recent studies have suggested scientists actively study only about 2,000 of them. New research investigates why some genes are studied over and over again, while others are neglected. Its authors found that a genes’ medical significance—how likely it is they play a role in human disease—doesn’t explain the discrepancy. Instead, while many researchers are interested in understudied genes, career incentives encourage scientists to focus on genes that are already better understood.
We spoke with one of the study’s authors, Thomas Stoeger of Northwestern University, to learn more.
RG: What are the main reasons researchers prefer looking at some genes over others?
Stoeger: Several mechanisms make researches look at the same genes over and over again. Many of those involve the ease of justifying future studies and being productive within the time frames given to young researchers. Besides the access to prior literature and reagents and scientific communities, we also observe that junior scientists that study little-studied biology have a lower chance to become a principal investigator, while grants dedicated to the training of future scientists and exploratory science end up supporting research on the same kind of genes as other grant categories.
Based on personal experience and discussions, it would seem that many researchers would actually prefer to study the less explored aspects of biology.
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