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, "weve 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. Hes had one foot in each worldacademia
and industryfor many years. "Its 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 Ive answered
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 dont 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."
||"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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