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Biology Is for Physicists

Harvard’s new genomics research center brings together a rather unconventional biology team.

Even in Cambridge, MA’s notorious real estate market, $25 million can buy you a pretty nice building. Take, for example, Harvard’s brand-new Bauer Laboratory, slated to open this March. The structure will house 5,600 square meters of lab space, offices, tea rooms and other facilities. It will also be home to the university’s new Bauer Center for Genomics Research (the $25 million came from Harvard alumnus Charles T. “Ted” Bauer) and, if all goes according to plan, some innovative new approaches to understanding the workings of biological systems.

Technology Review senior editor Rebecca Zacks spoke with the center’s director of research affairs, Laura Garwin, back in November. At the time, her growing staff-an unusual conglomeration of biologists, mathematicians and physicists, to name a few-was working in borrowed spaces scattered across campus and looking forward to moving into its new digs. Garwin, formerly an editor at Nature, talked about the importance of forging interdisciplinary collaborations and the questions researchers at the center will tackle now that the human genome has been sequenced.

TR: What does “genomics” mean now that we have a rough draft of the human genome?

GARWIN: To me, genomics means a collection of high-throughput ways of doing biology. It’s the way we can do biology now that we have complete genomes. Soon we’ll also have other parts lists that will help us figure out what’s going on in a cell, for instance, a complete list of proteins. Basically, genomics indicates ways to look at what’s going on in the cell in some comprehensive manner instead of one gene or protein at a time.

TR: That sounds a lot like what Lee Hood calls systems biology-is that what the center is aiming to do?

GARWIN: I think it’s very closely aligned to systems biology. In fact, we could just as well be called “The Center for Systems Biology.”

TR: What questions would the center like to answer by looking at biological systems rather than individual components?

GARWIN: One question that we’re very interested in involves modules-by that I mean collections of genes or proteins that work together to accomplish some goal. We’d like to know if modules exist in biology, and if so, how they work, how they evolved and if there are design principles that underlie how biology works.

TR: If you find such modules, what could you do with them?

GARWIN: From a practical point of view, if you know how a particular module works in a microorganism, you might be able to either kill it or tinker with it to keep it from infecting humans. In the past biologists have used rather blunt approaches, like “let’s knock out a gene and see what happens.” But if you have complex networks of genes, knocking out a single gene may do nothing. Having a complete circuit diagram of the way a biological pathway or module works will give us much more control.

TR: What motivated you to come to the center?

GARWIN: My background’s actually in the physical sciences-my first degree was in physics and my PhD was in earth sciences. I also worked at Nature for 15 years, and in my last few years there I got very interested in the interface between physical science and biology. I believe that the time has really come when physics, computer science, engineering and math can make a real contribution in biology.

In the last ten years or so biology has become a data-rich science, thanks to all these high-throughput ways we have of collecting data. Physics has also evolved in recent years to be able to handle complex systems, certainly much more complex than what we could have handled just 10 or 15 years ago. And so I think that the time is ripe for there to be good cross-fertilization between physical science and biology. That’s why what we’re trying to do here is to bring people together from different disciplines.

TR: How is the center organized?

GARWIN: The center has two functions: to do research and to serve the Harvard community by teaching the latest genomics techniques. The research function is carried out by fellows and their groups. When we’re fully staffed, we’ll have 10 fellows. We fund each fellow to have a group of three people. The other half is our service activity, which so far consists of people who help Harvard faculty and post-docs and students do microarray experiments.

As we go on, we’re also going to have a similar role in bioinformatics, helping people to use computational tools to fish out information from all the genomes that are available. And another technology that we’re hoping to support is mass spectrometry for proteomics (identifying and discovering the function of all proteins in a cell.) That’s becoming an increasingly important technology and we’re just now putting in a proposal to get funding to have a mass spectrometry facility here.

TR: What are some of the current fellows’ projects?

GARWIN: Gavin MacBeath is working on developing protein microarrays. DNA microarrays can tell you which genes are turned on and off in a given cell, but that’s only the beginning of the story-genes make proteins and what you really want to know is what proteins are around and what they’re up to. Gavin’s protein arrays will allow the abundance and state of thousands of proteins to be monitored simultaneously. Lani Wu and Steve Altschuler are a wife and husband pair of mathematicians who are really just getting into biology. We hope they’ll interact with several of the other fellows and develop techniques to understand quantitatively the data that are coming out of some of the experiments. Hans Hofmann works on cichlid fish from the Great Lakes of East Africa. He’s interested in the plasticity of behavior and the neural basis for different types of behavior. Kurt Thorn is a biophysicist who is also trying to get at what proteins are doing in cells by tagging them. He’s developing fluorescent tagging methods to identify proteins that are in different states in the cell.

TR: Is everything on schedule for opening the new building?

GARWIN: Yes. We’re looking forward to moving in. The building is designed to be conducive to lots of interaction, with interaction rooms and tea rooms on each floor. There’s also a videoconferencing room so that we can collaborate with people from far-flung places. Once we have a building, we can think more about other ways to act as a focal point for interdisciplinary research, in addition to a seminar series that we’ve started.

So watch this space.

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