Dear President Bush:
A new branch of science is emerging that will have a far-reaching impact on the economy of the United States, with applications to medicine, agriculture and defense that will be revolutionary.
The discovery that DNA carries the genetic code for cells opened a new era in biology that focused on the organization of information in cells. Soon we will know all the genes in cells from humans and many other species and high throughput methods are available to identify proteins and to analyze their three dimensional structures. However, the sequence of a genome only provides the equivalent of nature's white pages, a useful index of genes but far less than we need in order to know how cells work.
At present researchers are creating a list functions for those genes in different cell, which is equivalent to nature's yellow pages. But even this is not enough to know how organisms are built since the genes encode a program that is used during development to create a wide range of different cells and organs.
We need a new approach to these problems that uses all of the tools in molecular genetics and in addition brings to bear powerful computational tools from computer science. Although we have the tools and techniques to make major discoveries, we do not have enough scientists, trained at the interface between biology and computer science, to make them.
A bold new initiative is needed to train a new generation of computational biologists who are equally at home in wet bench science and the world of computational science. A new national institute should be initiated at the National Institutes of Health devoted to the goal of discovering broad general theoretical principles for how biological systems become self organized into functional systems.
For example, we can anticipate that general principles will emerge from the study of how various proteins and macromolecular complexes in cells interact with each other and control gene expression. The potential payoff for establishing these general principles is enormous. The Institute for Computational Biology and Medicine will be a resource for the entire nation, focusing existing talent and creating the computational infrastructure needed to make major advances.
Professor, Salk Institute; Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute;
Professor of Biology and Neurosciences, University of California, San Diego;
Coauthor of The Computational Brain and most recently (with Steven Quartz) Liars, Lovers, and Heroes: What the New Brain Science Reveals About How We Become Who We Are.