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It's sometimes difficult articulating what the benefits of basic research can be. This week I had to explain this to my students- and sadly the textbook was not as helpful as I had hoped. It was the standard fare, vague claims of benefits that could emerge in the future.

Left to my own devices I came up with I think, was a far better illustration. If we go back to the 1930s to early 1960s we have a lot of basic research going on into genetics. Whilst we take it for granted that DNA is the molecule of inheritance, this had to be discovered. There was for a while, an alternative hypothesis that protein molecules within the cell acted as the inheritance mechanism. The Watson-Crick discovery of the structure of DNA didn't take place until 1953. This basic research then led to some very important medical applications years later.

In the late 1970s there was a looming insulin crisis. Insulin is used to treat diabetes. For decades, insulin was extracted from slaughtered animals and used to treat people. This had two problems. The minor problem was that a small percentage of people had adverse reactions to this animal insulin. The major problem was that the number of diabetics was increasing and the number of slaughtered animals was not. The forecast was that by the early 1980s there would be insufficient insulin supplies. More and more people would simply be excluded from insulin-treatment. This would result in both shortened lives, suffering and of course, deaths. Bear in mind this is from an era where diabetes rates was around 2-2.5% of the population. It is more than double that now.

The solution was elegant. A gene that produces insulin was inserted into a bacterium. Bacteria started producing medical insulin- and at a level that kept pace with medical need. Millions of people with diabetes are basically alive today because of the basic research that occurred decades earlier. Without knowing about genes, where they're located and how they function, none of this would have followed.