Collaboration is now the name of the game in research. Having spent many a year diligently creating a unique identity for each scientific discipline, the drive is now on to bring down the divides and adopt a holistic approach. 

But more than just a buzzword to guarantee funding, collaboration can genuinely provide a revelatory insight into scientific problems, old and new. A perfect illustration of this can be found in the 12 July issue of Nature (412, 6843, 143-144). Hem two leading scientists from very different disciplines combine forces to propose a hypothesis for the mechanism and onset of neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington's chorea. Max Perutz of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology and Alan Windle of the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy, both in Cambridge, UK, each bring a unique and vital perspective to the problem.

Neurodegenerative diseases are often associated with the formation of protein aggregates in the afflicted neurons. In essence, Perutz and Wind[e hypothesize that the physical laws describing the aggregation of particles can account for the nucleation of protein deposits and how this process determines the onset of the disease. Their model also provides an indication of where efforts to develop an effective therapy should be directed. And because the suggested path is the prevention or reversing of aggregation - physics may be of assistance here as well Should the hypothesis be borne out experimentally, there am implications for the understanding - and ultimately treatment - of a whole range of neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and even prion-related diseases like CJD, air of which are associated with protein aggregates. 

This type of collaboration between disciplines - and across geographical divides - can only be made easier in this electronic age. Stephanie Teastey and Steven Wolinsky describe some interesting current initiatives on the web in a recent issue of Science (292, 5525, 2254-22SS). The 'collaboratory' - or virtual laboratory created by means of a computer network - is already being used successfully in various research projects in the USA. Supporting functions such as video- or te|econferencing with real-time document and image sharing, collaborators can participate in a laboratory meeting from their own PCs. 

But can such virtual collaboration ever replace real face-to-face interaction? Studies of such cyber collaboration have indicated that working together in this way can be very efficient indeed. In part, perhaps, because chit-chat is largely eliminated from the meeting context. Before complaining that this removes one of the joys of collaboration - and which could also lead to some chance insight or inspiration - apparently the first face-to-face meeting is still crucial.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(01)80215-7