New Faculty Profile
joins College faculty following work on human genome
weeks after joining the Berkeley faculty, newsmaker Gene Myers
became the 78th College of Engineering professor to be elected
to the National Academy of Engineering, one of the highest
honors for engineers in the U.S.
More than two years after the landmark sequencing of the human
genome, the computer whiz behind the algorithms used to decipher
millions of pieces of genetic material has joined the College
of Engineering as a professor in the Department of Electrical
Engineering and Computer Sciences.
Gene Myers, former vice president of Informatics Research at Celera
Genomics in Rockville, Md., will work closely with researchers
in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, Lawrence Berkeley
National Laboratory and the Department of Energy’s Joint
The move marks a return to academia for Myers, who taught at the
University of Arizona in Tucson for 17 years before the race to
sequence the human genome inspired him to pack up for Celera in
1998. He gambled that the "whole-genome shotgun sequencing
method," used to sequence the genome of microbes, could also
work for the human genome.
Many fellow scientists were doubtful, but Myers proved them wrong
by altering the traditional protocol to handle the much larger
number of repeating structures in animal and human genomes, then
designing computer algorithms to reconstruct the sequence in the
We sat down with Myers to find out more about this innovative
thinker, one of the most influential players in the field of genomics.
Q: Why did you leave academics for Celera?
A: Celera gave me the opportunity to prove that
whole-genome sequencing could work. The public genome project
said it couldn’t, that what I was proposing was clearly
high risk. In some sense they were right. My idea was wild and
it was difficult to execute in academia. Academia is a great place
to spawn ideas, but the commercial sector is a good place to execute
Q: What kept you believing in your idea in a climate of
A: I was the only person who had been thinking about
this, and I had a hard time publishing articles about it from
1995 to 1998. I had given up on the idea that the human genome
would be sequenced this way. But then Celera contacted me and
said they were going to do what I proposed. They had already built
a business plan around it, so it was an offer I couldn’t
Q: How did you get into the field of computational biology?
A: I was interested in the process of comparing computer
files, which is similar to comparing DNA sequences. Computational
problem-solving in molecular biology was a new area when I got
into it as a new professor back in the early ’80s. I believed
I could apply the computational methods to molecular biology and
make my mark there. I enjoyed working in such a wide-open area
where nobody else was working. I don’t like working in crowded
areas and I don’t really enjoy competition.
Q: Then how did you handle the "race" to decode
A: I went to Celera because I could do what I wanted
to do, but I didn’t really care who got there first.
Q: How has decoding the genome changed the world of bioinformatics?
A: The whole-genome shotgun method has been adopted,
shifting the prevailing paradigm for genome sequencing and accelerating
the pace of discovery.
Q: How has the experience changed you?
A: Now that we have the human genome the large question
is, what to do next? I am back to the point of doing fundamental
research and exploring possibilities. I’ve become more interested
in the biology. Now I want to learn how cells work as molecular
Q: Why did you choose to come to Berkeley?
A: It is one of the top institutions in the country in
computer sciences and biology, and the Joint Genome Institute
and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are here. I really enjoy
the unfettered creativity of the academic environment and being
around students, and I felt this was a place where I could grow
and learn from the people around me.
Angela Privin, editor of Engineering News,
and Sarah Yang of UC Berkeley Media Relations
contributed to this story.
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