At 7 a.m., Patrick Brown strides into his lab at the Stanford University Medical School, relatively late because he had to drop off his twins at school. His research team is already engrossed in the day's activities. A young woman hurries by, carrying a tray of flasks. "This new sequence we gotwow!" she calls out exuberantly as she passes him. Brown smiles. He moves on to his small, cramped office. At once a young man pokes his head in to say, "The work is going real well."
Brown and his team are on a rolland they know it. Every day they generate more ideas and projects than they can possibly carry out. They also produce far more data than they have time to analyze. Tall, thin, and intense, Pat Brown simply cannot speak slowlyhis words tumble out in quick spurts as he describes his work. Nor can he hide his excitement about the speed with which his kind of researchwhole-genome analysis, in which the activity of all the genes in a cell is examined at onceis making progress and sweeping through biology.
It's all part of the astounding growth in knowledge about the genetic instructions inside living creatures, a growth that has caught even the genetics community by surprise. So many genes are being uncovered so rapidly, and in so many different organisms, that scientists cannot keep up with the flood. Studying these genes one by one seems far too slow. To move things along, several researchers, including Brown, an HHMI investigator, have devised ingenious ways of tracking the role of every gene in the genome simultaneously.
This global approach enables scientists to see changing patterns of activity in a cell's genes when the cell is placed in different conditions and to follow such changes over time. Then the researchers try to figure out the patterns' meaning: Why is one group of genes in the cell increasing its activity just when another cluster is shutting down, for instance? Why are so many genes active during a process that was supposed to require only one gene? How does the activity pattern of genes in one type of cell differ from their pattern in another type?
Such questions could never have been asked before, and scientists are rushing to provide the answers. "It's breathtaking to see all this progress," says Ira Herskowitz, a pioneering yeast researcher who collaborates with Brown on some experiments. He predicts that whole-genome analysis will reveal the functions of thousands of newly identified genes. It will identify genes that regulate key pathways in a cell. It will enable physicians to make far more specific diagnoses. And it will lead to individually tailored therapies.
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Patrick Brown peers at his microarrayer, a robot that can record the activity of thousands of genes simultaneously.
Photo: Kay Chernush