Walter Gilbert

Professor, Molecular and Cellular Biology Dept., Harvard University

When Wally Gilbert veered from physics into biology in the early 1960s, he and other researchers had to decode genetic material using a very painstaking process. Then, almost by accident in the early '70s, Gilbert and his colleagues discovered a way to sequence DNA much more quickly. That discovery, which garnered Gilbert a Nobel prize, "transformed our ability to read genes," he says.

DNA sequencing has been speeding up ever since, changing at about the same rate as computer chips. "In my lifetime," says Gilbert, "we’ve gone from not being able to sequence DNA at all to the fundamental discovery of making it possible to now actually knowing essentially everything we want to know about DNA."

A faculty member at Harvard, Gilbert has another research life: He is involved in a small biotech company that is working to develop drugs that enhance memory. He’s had one foot in each world—academia and industry—for many years. "It’s a different world in the applied than in the basic research laboratory," he says. Researchers at universities have a long-range vision, and their work can take them in many different directions. "You have a goal of understanding," Gilbert explains. "You actually do it with your antennae out, saying, ‘I thought I was working on this question over here, but I see in fact that I’ve answered this question.’"

In contrast, his work in industry has focused on producing a specific drug to treat a specific condition. Even though these efforts result in real products, basic research is what underlies all of it. "We still don’t understand, in detail, how the body works, or the differences between one person and another," Gilbert says. "These are the great challenges of biology across this next 10, 20, 30 years."


Walter Gilbert
"What are the fundamental entities in the world? And can you actually understand that in the way that on the back of an envelope you can do a calculation and say something about the world?"

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