Elbert Branscomb on The Future of Genomics
  Elbert Branscomb     Biography    
Recorded: 30 May 2003

So I’m in the late and terminal decades of my life, so I have to think of things that make sense to do in a very few years. I’m now already past retirement age and I should have the discretion simply to retire. So there is a huge and beautiful suite of very, very important and exquisite problems in front of us now, like for example, just working out the regulatory—how the genome orchestrates itself. It is this incredible self playing piano, right, which changes its tune all the time based on what it detects. And so that orchestration business, the auto orchestration question how it works and so on is one of the very great issues. And the issue of genome level individuality and how that really influences our traits is an aspect, is in part this business of difference in orchestration over a genome, but in what part we don’t know. But that also is a hugely important, deeply consequential issue. So there are all these things in the foreground. And just going forward to take—now that we have the secret tablets of life out in the sacred chamber where the information is recorded and can read it ourselves now, we still read it, of course, without comprehension in the main. So, you know, in rough strokes, the task now forward is to do biology which will be correctly seen as essentially starting now. And to understand how it really works and what’s going on, what the tapes mean, what the great tablets of life mean.

And so in that sense the future of the genome project is coextensive with the science of life. It will by invasive, insidious capture just become biology. We have this incredible fact about life on earth that all things big enough to see, everything with more than one cell, all such creatures; plants, animals, fungi are all very closely related to each other compared with how they are in turn related to almost everything that life has ever invented, almost all eukaryotes, and certainly all the arcadia and all the bacteria represent the real fan of invention and creation in life. And we have not even, as Craig was invoking the other day, we haven’t even touched that even though we now sampled a few thousand of those creatures there is an untold myriad of them out there. They are an astronomy of different life forms with different capabilities and our planet runs on them. Our atmosphere is determined by them. Our soils—and so on and so on, they make the planet, have made it. And these are deep and big questions. And will keep us employed for a very long time. After my colleague Lisa Stubbs’s talk last night about these transcription factor genes, Bob Waterston came up to me and laughed and said, “We will never understand it, Elbert. “It’s God. It’s too complex.” It is hugely complex. Some have taken that to be a reassuring fact. Reassuring in the sense that we will never really be able to reduce ourselves to mere mechanism.

Francis wrote an essay essentially with that content, as I paraphrase it. It sort of is we are not just genetic mechanism, and if we are we won’t know about it forever because it’s so complicated. That’s not an argument that I’m sympathetic with, but nonetheless, there will be this kind of infinitely rich future as we now try to take life on its own terms. Now for the first time we are out on its playing field. We know and if we were trying to battle against the Borg, we would be probably hopelessly disadvantaged until we realized that it’s run by a code. It’s just an engine run by a code, and we can’t really make headway very well until we get the code ourselves and can try to understand what it is instructing the borg to do. And it is that transition which we have now made. At last, at last, at last!

Elbert Branscomb received his B.A. in physics from Reed College (1957) and his Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics from Syracuse University (1964). In 1964 he joined Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) as a theoretical physicist and became a senior biomedical scientist in 1969. In 1986, when the Department of Energy (DOE) initiated a program to map and sequence the human genome, he assumed responsibility for the computational and mathematical component of LLNL's human genome program. In 1996 Dr. Branscomb was named the Director of the DOE's Joint Genome Institute. Since November of 2000, he has held the position of Chief Scientist, US DOE Genome Program. In this capacity, he assists the DOE's Office of Biological and Environmental Research in the furtherance of its genomics-related research programs. In recognition of his scientific accomplishments, he was awarded the Edward Teller Fellowship in 2001.