To understand why HHMI is building its own research campus for the first time, says Institute President Thomas R. Cech, you just have to look at where the biomedical sciences are headed in the next decade or so: To turn these dreams into reality, you have to deploy the most advanced tools in the right kind of environment.
Take imaging tools, for example. "That's a broad term that means trying to locate the molecular components of living cells in as much detail as possible," says Cech, and "then seeing how those molecules move within the cell, how they change partners within the cell and how they change position within the cellsay, from the cytoplasm to the nucleus."
Present-day examples include the use of rapid freezing to lock cellular structures in place so that they can be mapped by a high-voltage electron microscope. "But there's no reason to restrict it to the cellular level," Cech adds. "People are also interested in imaging how whole tissues and organs respond to various stimuli," for instance, by using nuclear magnetic resonance techniques to map the changes taking place in the brain as experience becomes fixed into memory.
Then there are the computational tools. "Computers have finally come into biology in a big way," says Cech. "Many of our investigators and their students are spending considerable amounts of time mining the databases of genomic sequence information that are becoming available at such a rapid rate."
Today, thanks to the Human Genome Project, virtually the entire three billion-letter sequence of Homo sapiens' DNA is available to anyone with access to the Internet. But soon, Cech says, "you can imagine a Web site where you could scoot around inside a cell as if you were in a video game, and look at any molecule you want." In effect, he adds, such a site would function as an electronic atlas that mapped the location of every type of molecule in every type of human cell at every stage of the cell cycleor at every stage of turning cancerous. "It will take very large computers to store that kind of information. But our techniques are getting to the point where this is a plausible dream, rather than a wild flight of imagination."
Researchers are also "modeling macromolecular structures or, in the neurosciences, using computational approaches to map out neural connections and then model them with neural networks," says Cech.
The new HHMI campus, he notes, will push hard to advance these tools and many more, with heavy emphasis on cutting across traditional disciplines. MMW
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Reprinted from the HHMI Bulletin,
July 2001, pages 24-27.
©2001 Howard Hughes Medical Institute
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