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Spring 2003


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Myers joins College faculty following work on human genome

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New Faculty Profile
Myers joins College faculty following work on human genome

Myers image
Six 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 Genome Institute.

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 correct order.

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 them.

Q: What kept you believing in your idea in a climate of doubt?
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 refuse.

Q: How did you get into the field of computational biology?
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 the genome?
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?
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?
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 machines.

Q: Why did you choose to come to Berkeley?
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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