Koichi Tanaka on the Mission of Science and Technology
Science and technology have brought tremendous progress to the human race. Shimadzu Corporation has been a part of these efforts throughout its history. However, even now, humanity continues to face numerous challenges, and our future is not guaranteed to be bright.
The year 2020 marked the fifty-year milestone since Shimadzu released its first mass spectrometer. Mass spectrometry has played a role in accelerating progress in the life sciences. Koichi Tanaka, a Nobel laureate in Chemistry, an Executive Research Fellow at Shimadzu, and acting as the head of Shimadzu’s Koichi Tanaka Mass Spectrometry Research Laboratory, talked about science, technology and the future of humankind.
(Note: This interview took place in 2020.)
Great Strides in Mass Spectrometry
I joined Shimadzu in 1983. Since then, I have been involved in the research and development of an analytical technique called mass spectrometry.
Mass spectrometry generates ions from compounds, separates these ions, and detects them qualitatively and quantitatively, thereby enabling us to quantify known substances and identify unknown compounds in analytes. Mass spectrometry is considered to have been first developed in 1919, more than 100 years ago.
Fifty years later, in 1970, Shimadzu introduced the LKB-9000 to Japan in partnership with LKB, a Swedish company that manufactured the world’s first mass-produced gas chromatograph mass spectrometer (magnetic sector MS). Exactly 50 years have passed since then, so for me this year feels deeply significant.
When I first joined Shimadzu, our flagship product was Shimadzu’s original gas chromatograph mass spectrometer. The system at the time was large enough to fill a room of our laboratory. Today, we manufacture a variety of mass spectrometers, including one the size of a microwave oven, that are more than one hundred million times more sensitive. The resolution power has also significantly improved to a degree that was unimaginable 50 years ago. These advances have been applied in various research, such as: to analyze trace levels of pollutants in the environment, to monitor drug concentration for new drug development, and to reveal the biological mechanisms of diseases not yet well understood.
In addition, matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization-mass spectrometry (MALDI-MS) has paved the way to ionize and analyze macromolecules such as proteins without destroying them, something that was previously impossible to do. Behind this scientific achievement (*) was a discovery based on my “monumental blunder” in the course of my research searching a matrix that would enable non-destructive ionization of macromolecules by soft desorption ionization methods.
(*) The finding led to the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2002.
At our research laboratory, we have worked on a study to search for blood biomarkers to predict amyloid-beta deposition in the brain, which is considered an indicator of Alzheimer’s disease. One reason we followed this line of research was its selection by Japan’s Funding Program for World-Leading Innovative R&D on Science and Technology (FIRST, March 2010 to March 2014).
At first, we were told this research would be fruitless. However, through collaboration with the National Center for Geriatrics and Gerontology and various other leading institutions, my staff and I persisted, building up results step-by-step. In 2018, we finally succeeded in publishing an article in Nature. Our research work is not over with the publication of the article. We still have a lot to do. We still continue to engage in research and development for practical advancements by automating the analytical workflow and increasing the laboratory throughput in cooperation with many partners in industry, academia, and government.
Currently, infectious diseases caused by pathogens are threatening us again. We have been studying how to apply the laser ionization method for microorganism analysis. Using mass spectrometry for infectious disease testing enables the cause of an infection to be determined faster than before. Appropriate treatment can then be provided before the disease becomes serious, and it could help prevent the spread of the infection. Currently, mass spectrometry is being used worldwide to identify the cause of bacterial infections.
Unfortunately, new infectious diseases appear one after another. In collaboration with several related departments within Shimadzu, our lab will be investigating whether mass spectrometry-based identification has potential applications for viral diseases.
MALDImini-1, the First Commercially Available Compact MALDI Digital Ion Trap Mass Spectrometer
The MALDImini-1 fits in a space the size of a piece of paper, while allowing fast high-sensitivity measurements and detailed structural and qualitative analyses over a wide mass range, even with sub-microliter sample volumes.
What it Means to be Useful
Science and technology have allowed humans to make what was invisible visible, and the knowledge we have gained has been used to create healthy and safe societies. Nevertheless, I am concerned that pure science is still not viewed as a worthy pursuit.
Compared to technological development aimed at commercialization through the practical application of fundamental principles, pure science and its pursuit of basic research, leading to Nobel Prizes, does not produce immediate economic benefits. For this reason, it has been labeled as pointless. But is that really the case?
I believe that science and technology each have a purpose, and both are essential to the continued existence of who we are as people. It is true that technology advances in an attempt to deliver things beneficial to the real world, so it is easy to see how it is useful. However, I see science as having a deeper, more profound purpose.
Progress in science is guided by a sense of curiosity, or the desire to discover what is currently unknown. On the other hand, progress in technology is guided by a sense of public duty, or the desire to be useful to people.
This is the general principle of my approach towards experimentation. In Japanese, the words for “sense of curiosity” (Kou-ki-shin) and “sense of public duty” (Kou-kyou-shin) even sound similar.
In contrast with other animals, humans clearly have a much greater sense of both curiosity and public duty. As a result, we have been able to prosper so well on Earth as a species. Curiosity and public duty have worked in tandem to support human progress, each being essential to the other. In other words, I believe the role of science is to help us continue to be human.
Beyond Human Conceit
Not long ago, the expression “Be Kind to the Earth” became popular. Through many changes and developments, this has evolved into what we now call “SDGs,” though even this concept retains an element of arrogance. I believe this issue requires a wider, more historical frame of view.
SDGs stand for “sustainable development goals.” It is not clear who the goals are for, but they are almost certainly human goals. Principally, to protect the Earth’s environment so humankind can continue to exploit it and live on Earth for generations to come.
In reality, Earth does not care if humans are kind to it. From its perspective, humans are incidental in the grand scheme of things in the universe. In primeval times, cyanobacteria are believed to have released vast amounts of oxygen that wiped out almost all living things. The Earth survived despite this. The popular theory for why humans and other animals flourish today is because the dinosaurs were made extinct by a meteorite impact. And yet, our success represents a tiny footnote in the long history of Earth.
If we are to pursue SDGs, rather than thinking of humans as separate from the natural world, we should consider the idea familiar to Japanese and Eastern cultures that humankind is a part of the natural world and that human-being itself, and even civilization, is a “natural phenomena”, born of the Earth in the broadest sense. I think this framework will help you find goals and milestones that go beyond the concept of SDGs.
All individuals should ask themselves, “What should I do?” We should also keep this perspective in mind when dealing with the current coronavirus pandemic. The world is currently united in fighting to overcome this disease, yet a virus is not something we can eradicate completely. Humankind has survived many infectious diseases, not through eradication but, rather, through coexistence, such as incorporating some of their bacterial and viral genetic information into our genetic code.
As the recent coined expression, “living with COVID-19,” suggests, I think it is best to take the view that we should avoid danger as much as possible while accepting that this will be a long-term relationship.
Innovation Arises from the Meeting of Different Fields and Perspectives
No man is an island, and anybody, including myself, who sets out to achieve their goals alone will only be defeated by their own limited abilities. This is why it is so important for people from different fields and different industries to work together.
In the case of the coronavirus, once the virus spread to epidemic levels, companies and individuals with no previous involvement in medicine or drug discovery proposed one new idea after another. They then collaborated with pharmaceutical companies and manufacturers such as us and produced an array of original innovations and products.
This meeting of people who had never met before and the sharing of ideas outside the bounds of their imaginations created a fertile ground for innovation. Innovation is often interpreted to mean technological reform, but essentially it means “new connections, new perceptions, and new applications.” Defined in this way, innovation seems merely a natural flow of events.
The R&D facility where I now work was built just last year and includes a space on the ground floor designed to be like a salon. People from outside the company have also visited there for discussions, and we have created a work style in which we try to test the discussion in the laboratory by saying, "Well, let's give it a try."
Many people from our engineering and research groups in other buildings have also relocated to this new facility. One of these groups developed our reagent kit for PCR analysis (*). Previously, it was a 15-minute walk to visit this team but now they are less than one minute away. Thanks to this new R&D facility, many colleagues can pursue their research sitting beside each other.
I make it my custom to walk around Shimadzu for work. Before relocating to this facility, I used to walk 4,000 to 5,000 steps a day. Now, I walk over 10,000 steps each day. This count should have become smaller given how much closer I am to my colleagues, but it shows how many more opportunities this environment gives me to meet with different people. The same is probably true for other people, too, and I look forward to seeing how this will turn out in the future.
Allowing Young Researchers the Opportunity to Thrive
I have led this research laboratory for the past 17 years and, during this time, have also headed a research program under Japan’s Funding Program for World-Leading Innovative R&D on Science and Technology for several years, but I am far from a natural leader.
My approach has been to nudge team members by saying, “That’s interesting. Keep working on it,” or to encourage them by saying, “That might seem like a failure, but perhaps you can use it for another purpose if you try it this way,” when I see them struggle.
I was shy and a poor communicator in my 20s and had trouble expressing myself in social situations. Despite this, my supervisors and senior colleagues recognized my good points and were kind enough to praise and nurture me.
I received encouragement at our monthly presentation in the laboratory, gained confidence at the annual in-house presentation meetings, then began participating in conferences, where I met other mentors who connected me to the wider world. This series of experiences has led me to become the person I am today.
This is why I want young researchers to enjoy their work without fear of failure, as I believe this approach will lead to new discoveries.
My personality has always been contrarian, and I have also believed you cannot keep up with geniuses by thinking in the same way as them. This is why, even if a member of my group makes a mistake and strays away from their goal, I tell them honestly what is good from my point of view.
A research laboratory under a leader like myself has published over 100 papers in 15 years. It shows, I believe, that this approach is not entirely ineffective.
Becoming an Advanced Problem-Solving Nation
Attempting to look at things from a slightly different perspective is actually very important.
I discovered a new method for ionizing proteins when I accidentally added the wrong material to a matrix but tested it anyway because I didn’t want to waste it.
I majored in electrical science at university. If I had studied chemistry at university and had better knowledge in the area at that time, I would probably never have tried using the matrix after adding the wrong material.
To put it the other way around, it was thanks to being outside the field that I discovered the new method. This can be said to be an example of how innovation arises from the meeting of different fields and perspectives.
Japan is called an advanced nation that faces many challenges, such as a declining birthrate and aging population. However, Japan is also an advanced country in terms of solving a number of issues, such as recovering from disasters and environmental pollution.
As we inherit this legacy today, people in all fields continue to collaborate across disciplines, share their wisdom, and work hard to overcome the many challenges we see in front of us. I think we should appreciate this amazing state of affairs and be extremely confident about it.
I have no doubt that the wisdom and enthusiasm directed at overcoming challenges will positively impact the world. Personally, I am continuously committed to putting my own abilities to use as just one researcher among many.
(*) Research Use Only. On September 8, 2020, we obtained approval from the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare for the marketing of "Ampdirect™ 2019-nCoV Detection Kit" for in vitro diagnostics in Japan.