Why an interdisciplinary biological research institute now?


Why have a number of research universities recently jumped on the bandwagon of building interdisciplinary institutes in the biomedical sciences? To glean an insight into this phenomenon, let us first look at how scientific discoveries progress.

The most spectacular sequence of discoveries in biology relate to DNA. In 1944 it was shown to be the genetic material; that led to the discovery of DNA's double-helical structure by Watson and Crick in 1953, which was followed by the discovery of restriction and modification enzymes. That led to DNA cloning, which led to DNA sequencing, which led to determining the DNA sequence of whole genomes. And that led to using computational analysis for comparative genomics.

It is striking how this sequence of discoveries involved multidisciplinary approaches, first from microbiologists, then physicists, more microbiologists, then chemists and computational biologists -- all contributing to what we call heredity. Parallel to these successes were giant steps to elucidate the genetic code, the mechanisms of gene regulation and the atomic structures of proteins, and the visualization of the intricate internal organization of cells, to name a few.

As these major advances were taking place, universities and medical schools, in particular, tried to keep up with cutting-edge research by changing the focus of many of their departments and creating new ones. In the '60s and '70s, departments of botany, zoology or anatomy morphed into such departments as biochemistry, biophysics, genetics, molecular biology and cell biology, and, more recently, systems biology. Spectacular research continued to flourish in these settings.

In the early '60s at Cornell, basic biology was scattered among various departments. In 1964 this fragmentation led to the establishment of the Division of Biological Sciences with five sections: Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (later Biochemistry, Molecular and Cell Biology), Genetics, Development and Physiology (later Botany, Genetics and Development, and later still, Genetics and Development), Neurobiology and Behavior, Ecology and Systematics, and Microbiology (disbanded in 1973, and with Sections of Physiology added in 1976, and of Plant Biology in 1980). This structure was maintained until the division was replaced by free-standing departments in 1998. Over the life of the division, the number of faculty grew to 100 from 47.

By the end of the '90s, Cornell, like many other institutions, had well-established departments enjoying an exciting era of biological discovery. They had witnessed in 1996 the first complete genomic DNA sequence of a eukaryote (budding yeast), followed by sequences of several other key genomes (e.g., a nematode, a fruit fly, a plant), and culminating in 2000 with the sequence of the human (and later mouse) genome. These achievements provided a molecular inventory of each organism. For the first time we had a list of all the parts as well as the commonality among organisms and a clear measure of life's complexity. New technologies based on genomic sequences arose, allowing for unheard-of new mountains of data, which required the marriage of computer technologies with biology. It soon became clear that to exploit the newfound information, we would need to apply techniques from computer science, chemistry, physics and engineering to biological problems. This turning point was enhanced by the fact that the National Institutes of Health -- the major funder for basic biology research -- was to double its research budget between 1998 and 2003.

To embrace the opportunities triggered by the great discoveries in genomics, the pressing need for more interdisciplinary approaches and the increase in research spending, many institutions and benefactors concluded that simply expanding current departments would be too confining. The concept of a new institute -- where researchers from a variety of scientific disciplines could be brought together to address fundamental problems in biology and medicine in a specially designed new facility -- seemed the solution. Both universities and philanthropic organizations spent hundreds of millions of dollars building such research institutes to house and recruit top researchers.

Today, some of the well-known successes are BioX at Stanford (opened 2003), the Life Sciences Institute at the University of Michigan (2003), the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton (2003) and the Weill Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology at Cornell (2008). In addition, private foundations got into the act by establishing, for example, the Van Andel Institute in Michigan and the Stowers Institute in Kansas City (both opened in 2000).

All these institutes are aimed at enhancing the quality of biomedical research by bringing together outstanding scientists from different backgrounds to work alongside each other to exploit interdisciplinary approaches. Now that Cornell and others have embraced the opportunity to assemble cutting-edge institutes, it will be exciting to watch them grow and eventually harvest the fruits of their scientific discoveries.

Anthony Bretscher is associate director of the Weill Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology at Cornell.


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