photograph by Andrew Cutraro

Model of Success

Taking inspiration from the best.

At the famously innovative Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge, England, Sydney Brenner made his mark. When his former grad student Gerry Rubin created HHMI’s Janelia Farm Research Campus, he modeled it after both the LMB and Bell Labs, hoping to replicate their vibrant, visionary cultures. Today, Brenner spends part of his year at Janelia, as a senior resident fellow.

You’ve been involved with Janelia since the beginning. Is it working?

Janelia Farm was, and still is, a very good idea. The problems being undertaken here are very important. It is the last frontier for biological sciences—how the brain gets built and how it works. Along with developing new imaging technologies, Janelia is meant to discover the principles of the construction of neural networks. It’s taking a very extended view, starting with model organisms.

Isn’t similar research going on elsewhere?

No. There are two ways of approaching complex biological systems. You can do systems biology and try to deduce what happens inside from measuring behavior. But it actually won’t work: you cannot make the measurements accurately enough.

Or you can construct a wiring diagram of neurons and ask if you can use it to explain behavior. That’s what’s going on at Janelia. Many things have to be solved simultaneously, and a big effort has gone into techniques. We’ve continued the development of all forms of microscopy, with tremendous progress.

But one of the important ideas here is that you shouldn’t just develop techniques and wait for someone to use them. The tools should be ripped out of the hands of the engineers and used, and that’s exactly what’s happened here.

Can you give a good example?

There is a recent paper by Scott Sternson on certain neurons in the mouse hypothalamus. He uses optogenetics and techniques he’s developed, such as new ways of stimulating neurons, for an analysis of the eating circuit. It actually tells you why animals want to eat and how you can control that.

How important is the fact that Janelia researchers don’t need to apply for grant money?

If you go, as I do, to the Salk or Scripps Institute, the talk isn’t about science; it is about how am I going to get enough money to maintain my research. That is the talk all over America.

In that sense, this is a wonderful haven, and we really need centers like this to provide opportunities for young people. That is going to be very important for science generally and specifically for the future of American science.

Have HHMI and director Gerry Rubin succeeded in creating a culture of innovation like that at LMB?

In the LMB, we were more tightly packed—this place is very grand. It may be just a romantic sentiment, but I feel that when you are living in more of a warren, you may be more productive. We’re getting closer to that ideal at Janelia, as we fill the last third of the building and people begin knocking into each other in the corridors. What’s terribly important in a lab is keeping it open and keeping the conversation going all the time.

In addition, at the LMB we never dragooned anybody into a project. So I did suggest, and we’ve implemented, having postdocs at large at Janelia who do multiple things—we call them junior fellows. I think it is these people who will make the bridges, and I think we need more of them.

What other challenges does Janelia face?

One challenge is the absence of an intellectual community beyond the labs. Cambridge was fantastic because we could be with people in different subjects. It can be hard to explain science to a professor of English literature, but if you succeed, it teaches you. Gerry is bringing endless people here for meetings and outside lectures, but it’s hard to fix this.

How much do you get involved in the science at Janelia?

Because I live on site, I go a lot to the pub and talk to everybody. It’s important to encourage them and tell them how difficult it was in the old days. I also have my own little project here. I’d like to know, how is it specified in the genome to build the very complex things we have in our bodies? You could call it the final code.

Sydney Brenner is a Nobel laureate and senior fellow of the Crick–Jacobs Center at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California.

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