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Miguel Beato, scientist: ‘We are a plague on the Earth’

The first director of the Centre for Genomic Regulation and an expert in basic cancer research believes that the disease cannot be defeated, but it can be controlled

Miguel Beato, first director of the Centre for Genomic Regulation, at the institution’s headquarters in the Barcelona Biomedical Research Park.
Miguel Beato, first director of the Centre for Genomic Regulation, at the institution’s headquarters in the Barcelona Biomedical Research Park.Carles Ribas
Jessica Mouzo

Miguel Beato’s glasses darken with the early sun that beats down on Barceloneta beach, Barcelona (Spain). Outside what was his professional home until recently, the Barcelona Biomedical Research Park (PRBB, by its initials in Catalan), the scientist cleverly dodges the rays of light that dapple his sweater. Recently retired, he has allowed himself to be photographed, but imposes his criteria of ‘no photos in the laboratory.’

Between 2001 and 2011, Beato was the first director of the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG), a mainstay of international basic science, and his contributions have helped light the way in the fight against cancer. His latest major finding, published in the journal Science in 2016, described an unsuspected new pathway for the creation of adenosine triphosphate (ATP, which fuels cells) in the cell’s nucleus. “If you block that, it can’t make all the changes in the chain structure that a stem cell has to undergo to become a cancer cell,” he explains. A potential inhibitor that could serve this purpose has already been found, but that story will not be told by Beato.

The researcher who founded the CRG and put it on the map is leaving. He has just hung up his lab coat and is going to Germany, where he spent most of his career and where he lives with his family. He leaves behind a mature CRG, through which more than a thousand scientists from all over the world have passed and which has produced around 3,800 scientific articles in the 20 years that it has existed.

Question: Did you want to retire?

Answer: No, not at all. I’m retiring because I’ve done enough. I’m taking up space that is better for young people and I was already a little tired, my head is not what it used to be.

Q. Are you sad to leave?

A. Leaving my job made me sad, like I didn’t know what to do [with myself]. I’m adapting now, with my stones. I paint stones, I read a lot ... I continue to read the scientific literature and I still keep thinking science.

Q. How have things changed since you first entered a laboratory?

A. Oh, it’s completely different. I am a physician, I did not have an academic background in chemistry, physics or mathematics. I am a gynecologist. And I loved childbirth. But to think that I was going to dedicate my whole life to that seemed a little sad to me.

Q. Were you bored?

A. I was bored because one delivery is very similar to another. I loved the deliveries, don’t get me wrong! The truth is that I envy women because the greatest thing in the human species is the fact that a woman is able to create a different body with a different genome inside her body and not generate antibodies against it; and then to breastfeed it so it can thrive. That’s incredible. Men are superfluous, unnecessary, from the biological point of view of the species. Now, naturally, men are almost as important as women because it is the brain that counts, there is no more evolution.

Q. There is no more evolution?

A. The human being isn’t evolving anymore because medicine and healthcare allow those who do not have the ability to compete biologically to have children anyway. The human genome is no longer evolving, it’s devolving. Rather, we are creating bad genomes because we allow everyone, with whatever defect, myopia or whatever, to reproduce and have children. The key to evolution is that those who are not well prepared should kick the bucket and not have children. Otherwise, there is no evolution.

Q. Do scientific advances to improve people’s health go against human evolution?

A. The human species no longer evolves genetically, it evolves culturally. The evolution that exists is cultural, based on creating knowledge, domesticating nature, solving all the problems... And the proof is that what is evolving now is artificial intelligence, computers, but not the human brain.

Q. Is there any danger that human beings will no longer evolve, as you say?

A. It evolves poorly. There are more and more people with genetic defects [and] because they are treated, they get better and they can live. We are evolving physically, but we are also evolving culturally, and that is a faster, more powerful evolution.

Q. Do we win or lose from this change?

A. In principle, we stand to win, with the danger that there are too many of us. In other words, the worst thing that medicine has brought to Earth is that there are too many humans. We are a plague and we are taking over the world. The world is not being destroyed by wild animals. We are doing it with our factories, our cities — which are a total monstrosity — the destruction of nature, pollution. It is a culture that can lead to the end of the world for this species and it is approaching that. In the long run, we lose out.

Q. What do you propose?

A. I don’t know. The birth rate should be brought under control and the number of humans should be reduced. This used to be done with wars, but now there are no such wars that exterminate so many people.

Q. Maybe that’s not the best option either, is it?

A. It was what it was. And there was a bit of selection there as well because of that. But now there is none of that.

Q. Do you miss natural selection?

A. I don’t miss it. I see what is happening. I don’t miss it because I think it was brutal, and man has a chance to do something different.

Q. In an interview with EL PAÍS in 2000, you said that the CRG was going to be a center “of functional genomics,” of how the genome works. Did you succeed?

A. Yes, and we are the best functional genomics center in Europe, although there is one in England that will end up overtaking us because they have more private money. That is what we lack here: society does not invest in science.

Q. You also said that “there is no science with more applications than basic science.” Do you still think so?

A. All trials are based on something that someone has discovered by doing basic science. There is no science other than basic science. The others are statistical exercises, you compare one thing with another... And that’s fine, you have to do them, but you can do them better if you have new knowledge that allows you to explore new avenues.

Q. In 2008 you said that the CRG was still “young and fragile” and that little was known about the genome. And now?

A. We still do not fully understand the genome. It has about 25,000 genes that code for proteins [they have the information to create them] and we know them all well. What happens is that the rest of the genome, which does not code for proteins, is what makes one cell make a hair, another make a muscle and another make a bone. Each cell has the same genome and yet uses different parts of it, because of the rest of the genome that does not code for proteins, but conditions which parts that cell will use and which parts it will never use. That is functional genomics and it is only now beginning to be understood. We were the first to understand that the way the genome folds inside the nucleus is very important for cell differentiation. That is, there are proximities of regions of the genome that cause a cell to express one part of the genome and not another. It’s like origami. With a piece of paper, you can make a house or a boat depending on how you fold it.

Q. What is the most important thing we still don’t know about the genome?

A. It is very difficult because the genome is fiendishly complex; there are 3,000 million letters, one after the other. And every cell has more or less the same genome, but with small variations because there are errors in replication and that is what makes evolution possible. With the ability we now have to massively sequence whole genomes, we are in a position to begin to understand this. And there are already people doing it at the CRG.

Q. 20 years ago 92% of that first version of the genome was deciphered. Last year a complete version was published. What are the implications of this?

A. You don’t know your genome if you don’t know the whole genome. Your genome is like a story and there are repetitive parts that are key to the story. [Before] we had a very fragmentary view of the genome and we were missing the repetitive elements that we have, especially those that are viruses that have been incorporated into the genome by evolution and translocate within it. We still don’t fully understand how they work because they jump from one place to another in the same genome and that can lead to the fact that, by jumping to a particular place, they activate a part of the genome that was not supposed to be activated.

Q. So the genome is still a great unknown?

A. There is no one genome. Even in your cells there are many genomes. The genome of many cells will need to be sequenced in order to understand a person’s genome. When a cell divides, it has to replicate its entire DNA, and mistakes are made that we try to correct, but some are corrected and others are not. To read the genome we will need other, faster methods.

Miguel Beato, primer director del Centro de Regulación Genómica. Foto: Carles Ribas.
Miguel Beato, first director of the Centre for Genomic Regulation, in Barcelona.Carles Ribas

Q. What answers will that provide?

A. It is difficult to know until we have them because there are many things we still don’t know. But the truth is that soon people will be carrying their genome around with them, something like an identity [document]. And the genome of a tumor or a malformation will have to be compared with that genome. It will require a type of supercomputer, which is not yet available, [which is] able to make these comparisons in seconds. That will happen, but we are not there yet.

Q. You have dedicated part of your research to the fight against cancer. What remains to be known for this disease to be beaten?

A. It is very complicated. Now we understand that there is a part of the cell’s functioning that does not necessarily have to do with the chemistry that we study, that is, with how two molecules interact through their chemistry. What happens is that there are also non-specific aggregations in macromolecules that allow them to cooperate with each other, such as RNA with proteins, or proteins with other proteins.

Q. And that may be one of the keys to why one of these macromolecules that makes a cell becomes malignant?

A. Yes, that may be one of the keys. A city is much like a cell: it has roads, areas in which large groups of people gather, others where they do not, roads where there are many people and others where there are none. The cell is also like that: there are places where things happen and others where nothing happens.

Q. Is it possible to beat cancer?

A. To beat cancer, no; but to have it under control, I believe it is possible. When, I do not know. All those interventions that prevent cancer have other effects on cells and we also have to be sure that this does not create problems in other cells.

Q. Have you answered all the questions you had when you started?

A. No, not at all. The thing is, I also answered questions I didn’t have, which is a good thing. I considered the non-specific macromolecule interactions as a disorder that created problems for us and we had to eliminate it and see only the specific ones. However, these non-specific aggregations are key. This is how life began: in places where there were puddles, groups of molecules formed that could make chains until a group that formed could replicate and, if it could replicate, there was evolution.

Q. What is your greatest pride as a scientist?

A. I think it is to have created the CRG because, independent of me, it works in such a way that there is no one who can stop it.

Q. How would you like to be remembered?

A. I don’t know if I am very interested in being remembered.

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