2005 - The human genome project
may be near completion, but the "real"
human-genome project is just getting
underway. Scientists now know the sequences
of most of our genes. But they don't
necessarily know how those genes work
or, considering that most of the genome
is "junk" DNA that doesn't
contribute to the body's normal functioning,
whether they work at all. In other words,
we've got all the pieces, but we still
need to put the puzzle together. Many
of the geneticists who worked on the
original HGP are now pursuing follow-up
projects on their "genes of interest."
Here are four who will help give us
the complete picture.
Hood is given to car metaphors. "If
you want to understand a car, you can't
just study the carburetor," he
says. "You need to study all the
parts and how they function together
as the car travels." If that's
true, Hood must be the world's best
mechanic (metaphorically speaking, of
course). When he first went to Caltech
in 1970 on a three-year fellowship,
he told his department chair that he
wanted to spend half his time doing
biology and half doing technology development—with
the ultimate idea of using that technology
to study all the parts of the body simultaneously,
as a system, via multiple perspectives.
Hood had a vision of devices that could
read human DNA and proteins, and computer
systems that could analyze the results.
"At the end of the three years
[the chair] urged me in the strongest
possible terms to give up the technology,"
Hood says. But Hood was stubborn, and
he was also right. Now, as president
and director of the Institute for Systems
Biology—a one-of-a-kind organization
based in Seattle and independent of
academia—he is a scientific matchmaker,
bringing biologists together with chemists,
engineers, computer scientists and applied
fingerprints are all over modern genetics.
He was one of the earliest advocates
of the Human Genome Project, at a time
when many people thought sequencing
the genome was a largely useless, and
maybe impossible, goal. He is also one
of the people who made the project possible
by inventing DNA and protein sequencers,
which "read" the molecular
contents of those chemicals, and synthesizers,
which allow scientists to produce large
quantities of them for experimentation.
He has played a role in founding several
of the country's best-known biotech
firms, including Amgen and Applied Biosystems.
he's been working on a project that
analyzes how protein molecules fold
(page 52)—and, as a result, how they
interact with other chemicals in the
body to either keep systems running,
build new bodily components or, alternately,
cause disease. If he ever needed proof
that technology and biology were made
for each other, the protein-folding
project is it. The task would take "a
hundred thousand years with our computers,"
Hood says. But he has a corporate partner
in IBM and access to the company's Grid
system, which uses "brain"
power from computers around the world
to do immensely complicated math.