Lemelson-MIT Program
Who We Are Awards Outreach News
Invention Dimension Search Site Map Contact Us

Press Releases

$500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize awarded to

Inventor of Automated DNA Sequencer Transformed Scientific Landscape and Played a Key Role in the Human Genome Project

BOSTON, MA, April 24, 2003—The annual $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize—the world's largest single cash prize for invention—is being presented today to Dr. Leroy (Lee) Hood, president and co-founder of the Institute for Systems Biology, a non-profit research institute dedicated to applying systems biology to identify strategies for predicting and preventing diseases. The Lemelson-MIT Program is honoring Hood, 64, for his vision and inventions, which have permanently changed the course of biology, and revolutionized the understanding of genetics, life and human health.

Hood invented four instruments that have unlocked much of the mystery of human biology, including the automated DNA sequencer—which is the key technology for large-scale, high-speed sequencing of human genomes. The DNA sequencer was central to the emergence of the Human Genome Project, a ground-breaking effort launched in 1990 to map and sequence the three billion letters that compose the human genome. Other notable instruments include a powerful device for sequencing proteins, a machine for synthesizing proteins and an automated tool for synthesizing DNA.

"No single person has done more to create the genomics era than Leroy Hood," said Michael E. Phelps, Ph.D., professor and chair, Department of Molecular and Medical Pharmacology at the University of California School of Medicine, in his recommendation letter. "…He has not only done great science, but has created new science through which many will create new knowledge to the benefit of all mankind."

top of page


Hood's life's work has been defined by two fundamental beliefs, instilled in him while a doctoral candidate at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) by his mentor William Dreyer: always practice biology at the leading-edge; and if you really want to change biology, develop a new technology for pushing back the frontiers of biological knowledge.

Under Dreyer's direction, Hood learned how to sequence proteins, a process that determines the order of the 20 amino acids that make up a protein. Along with Dreyer, Hood sequenced antibody proteins found in tumors to study the problem of antibody diversity, the human body's ability to produce billions of different antibodies to fight disease. This led to their discovery of one of the most radical theories ever proposed in biology—antibody proteins are encoded by two distinct genes, explaining in part the versatility of the immune system. This poised Hood to focus his future on applying cross-disciplinary solutions, biology and technology, to unravel the mystery of antibody diversity.


As a faculty member at Caltech, Hood and his team of biologists and technologists were dedicated to understanding the link between disease and the three major types of biological information: DNA, proteins and biological systems. Their initial focus was to develop powerful technology that enabled the “reading” or sequencing of proteins that were previously invisible to biologists, due to their small quantities. In collaboration with colleague Michael Hunkapiller, Hood developed the gas liquid phase protein sequencer (1980). This tool was 100 times more sensitive than its predecessors, enabling Hood's lab to discover for the first time the chemical makeup of many important proteins, such as erythropoietin, a hormone that treats anemia by stimulating the production of red blood cells.

In order to understand how proteins operate, Hood's laboratory took this concept a step further and created the protein synthesizer (1984). This instrument assembles long peptides from amino acid subunits, making it possible to produce high volumes of proteins in order to run experiments on them. Together with drug company Merck & Co., Hood's colleague Stephen Kent used the machine to synthesize and purify a protein that became the basis of one of the most effective AIDS drugs, the protease inhibitor.

top of page


In the early 1980s, Hood and Hunkapiller, along with colleague Susan Horvath, astutely predicted the importance of automating the process for synthesizing DNA gene fragments and developed the first DNA synthesizer. This machine, about the size and shape of a microwave oven, strings together fragments of genes to manufacture DNA for use in DNA mapping and gene cloning, and also made possible the polymerase chain reaction—a technique for amplifying DNA fragments one million-fold.

Continuing his work at Caltech, Hood and Hunkapiller worked with Lloyd Smith to complete the most sophisticated of the four instruments—the DNA sequencer (1986). This machine rapidly determines the order of the four letters across the 24 strings of DNA by labeling the four DNA letters with laser-activated fluorescent dyes in red, green, blue or orange. The DNA sequences are then interpreted by a computer. This machine—after 15 years of incremental improvements—made DNA sequencing 3,000 times faster, facilitating the Human Genome Project, for which Hood was an early advocate and key player.


Systems biology emerged out of three forces: the Internet, the Human Genome Project and cross-disciplinary science. A systems approach to biology analyzes a living thing as a whole, rather than one gene or one protein at a time. According to Hood, it holds the secret to understanding diseases at the molecular level which will have a profound effect on the practice of medicine within the next 10 to 15 years. In 2000, Hood and two colleagues recognized the need to formalize the study of systems biology, and founded the Institute for Systems Biology.

Hood predicts that the practice of medicine will shift from today's reactive approach—diagnosing or treating a disease after it has manifested itself—to a predictive and preventive approach. Predictive medicine will enable the detection of genes that predispose humans to disease, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease; while preventive medicine will enable the isolation of the problem gene, and design medicine to block the effects of the defective gene.

top of page


In naming Hood as this year's $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize winner, Professor Merton Flemings, Director of the Lemelson-MIT Program says, "He is not only a pioneer that has changed the course of biology, but also a mentor with a true dedication to getting K-12 students interested and excited about science."

Hood, in collaboration with the Seattle School District, has implemented a systemic science education reform, establishing one of the most outstanding K-12 science programs in the nation. The ultimate goal, according to Hood, is to produce citizens who are thoughtful, informed and capable of inquiry-based thinking—and perhaps even interested in pursuing a career in science.

Hood received a B.S. in Biology from CalTech (1960), a M.D. from Johns Hopkins University (1964) and a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Caltech (1968). Hood, the recipient of nearly 60 academic and professional honors including the Kyoto Prize for Advanced Technology (2002) and the Lasker Award for Studies on Immune Diversity (1987), holds 12 patents and has co-authored more than 40 books or book chapters. In addition to the Institute for Systems Biology, he has founded or co-founded more than 10 companies, including Applied Biosystems and Amgen, that commercialize technologies.

Previous recipients of the annual $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize include Dean Kamen, inventor of break-through medical technologies, such as the Segway Human Transporter (HT)—the first self-balancing personal transporter for short-distance travel; Raymond Kurzweil, futurist and developer of pattern recognition technologies; and Thomas Fogarty, surgical pioneer and inventor of the embolectomy balloon catheter. Hood will be formally presented with the Lemelson-MIT Prize the evening of Thursday, April 24, 2003 at a special invitation-only ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston, MA.

Click here for more information on Dr. Hood.


Based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA, the Lemelson-MIT Program was established in 1994 by the late independent inventor Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife, Dorothy. The Program's mission is to raise the stature of inventors and innovators and to foster invention and innovation among young people. It accomplishes this by celebrating inventor/innovator role models through outreach activities and annual awards, including the world's largest for invention—the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. The Lemelson-MIT Program is funded by The Lemelson Foundation, which supports other invention initiatives at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Hampshire College, the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance and the University of Nevada, Reno.


top of page



Inventory Newsletter