Although he has never taken a biology class, Gene Myers's work gets a lot of notice from biologists. Fifteen years ago, Myers, whose formal training is in computer science, mathematics, physics, and engineering, co-wrote an article for the Journal of Molecular Biology that would become the most highly cited scientific paper of the decade. The paper describes a computer program he conceived called BLAST, for basic local alignment search tool, which rapidly compares any DNA sequence with every other sequence in the public genome databases. By "BLASTing" an uncharacterized DNA sequence, a researcher can often infer its role based on its similarity to known genes. The Internet-based tool has become so essential to molecular biologists—researchers BLAST some 500 trillion base-to-base sequence comparisons a year—that its bookmark typically sits on their browser's toolbar, right alongside that of Google.
And BLAST was only Myers's first home run. Five years ago he hit another one out of the ballpark—by building a critical tool that permitted "the private group" at Celera Genomics Corporation, where he was vice president for informatics research, to sequence the entire human genome. Of course, he didn't do it alone. But Myers's revolutionary whole-genome shotgun sequencing protocol and algorithms for assembling the 3 billion base-pair human genome puzzle from tens of millions of DNA fragments are widely credited for speeding the international sequencing effort and permitting its completion years ahead of schedule. Along the way, Myers was a key member of research teams that sequenced the genome of the fruit fly (a project headed by Janelia Farm Director Gerald Rubin) and that of the mouse, two of the most important model organisms for biomedical research, and also the focus of the scientific agenda at Janelia Farm.
Myers will depart from the sequence analysis field to join the nascent community of elite researchers at Janelia Farm. He'll continue doing what he does best: using computers to solve grand scientific mysteries—in this case, the architecture and workings of the brain. "We're planning to build complete reconstructions, to the level of detail possible, of fly brains and mouse brains. And then we want to use that neuroanatomy to try to understand function."
Studies like these will involve light and electron microscopy on countless slices of fly and mouse brains, which will generate enormous volumes of image data. That's where Myers's computational expertise fits in. "There's going to be too much data to be reconstituted manually," he says. "It's going to have to be done by computation." His Janelia Farm colleagues will use techniques for selectively turning on or off individual fly neurons and measuring the effects on behavior. "You'll warm the fly up and a particular set of neurons will shut down. Cool the fly back down and those neurons will come back on," he explains. Myers will design computer methods for managing, analyzing, modeling, and, ultimately, helping to understand all of that data.
That Herculean task will require the same insight and bold imagination that solved the human genome sequence. Myers revels in the challenge. "I'm a very hands-on kind of guy. I have lots of ideas. I love to roll up my sleeves and write the code."
He also relishes the creative environment at Janelia Farm, which will allow him to focus on discovery. "The group leaders are not administrators. The whole environment has been set up to enable us to think and work and solve problems with our own minds."
Myers has already noticed an esprit de corps among group leaders and scientific advisers at planning meetings. "Very different kinds of people are all talking to each other, thinking about what we can do together. It's really collaborative."
"Something significant is being built," he says, referring both to the flowing glass and concrete structure and the research community at Janelia Farm. "We're starting something new, and that's exciting to me. We have the opportunity to do really exciting science and to have the potential to hit more home runs."