Elbert Branscomb on Answers Revealed Through Genome Research: What Is Life?
  Elbert Branscomb     Biography    
Recorded: 30 May 2003

So for me psychologically, this just in terms of a small boy from a backwoods environment. I was educated in physics and I stumbled into biology incompletely by a back door. And I’m not really a biologist. But it was—this is a core piece clearly of an epiphany. It’s an epiphany about what is a living thing. What is the nature of matter in a living state? When I give lectures on the genome to general audiences which is now my fate and privilege to do quite a lot, or curse.

I’m quite often asked by people in the audience who are very thoughtful, but not biologists, they say, that’s very nice, Dr. Branscomb, it’s all very interesting and very exciting, but what happened to life? Where is the vital force? What is the difference between, you know, everything you’ve told us is just mechanism. And where does the mechanism stop and life, that must be different than just chemistry, where is that? From my psychology, my personal psychology, I love this fact. I love this reduction to mechanism. And I experience all this as giving us a profoundly clear and profoundly revolutionary insight into, to paraphrase another man, what it is a living thing? And what are we looking at fundamentally? And how should we view a living creature coming at us? If we are this Star Trek landing in a foreign world, and we see this form of energy, this form of something, what is it that we’re confronted with? What kind of thing is it? And that huge qualitative epiphany is what’s been happening to us and it is now exposed with brutal clarity without our understanding the details, but qualitatively we now see it in a certain sense. Often now when I start my lectures, the first slide is just 3,000 bases from the human genome. And I spend twenty minutes just talking about what does that mean? What does it mean that this—that it’s in there? How can it just be in a string of 0’s and 1’s? Or four letters and what’s in there? Why is this the important secret? And it is that aspect that is for me emotionally the big deal, and what it implies. What it will imply about our view about ourselves? About our view of our free will, our view of our genetic individuality? The kind of thing that Maynard Olson talked about to my great delight last night. These are questions that we confront as though we are being hit by a Mack truck. And they are deep, and they are consequential. And they’re not—they will be deeply troubling to us, I think for many different reasons.

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.