Mathematician has been a member of the faculty since 1980 and department head since 2004.
Biotechnology industry leaders have chosen the completion of mouse and human genome maps by the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research and the French research institute Genethon as "the most significant scientific achievement of 1996."
Each year, the biotech industry's CEOs gather for The Biotech Meeting at Laguna Niguel in southern California to exchange ideas and information. "As part of the event, they honor their peers for the previous year's outstanding achievements. In 1996, they took the unusual step of looking beyond the industry to academia, and recognized the Whitehead Institute and Genethon for their extraordinary achievements in genome research," said G. Steven Burrill, a host of the meeting.
The Whitehead Genome Center, directed by Professor of Biology Eric S. Lander, is the largest federally funded genome center sponsored by the National Center for Human Genome Research (NCHGR) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Recent Whitehead achievements include:
- Human physical map-construction of the crucial scaffold map of the human genome, containing 15,000 DNA landmarks, required to begin sequencing all human chromosomes.
- Mouse genetic map-completion of the first comprehensive genetic map of the mouse genome, containing nearly 8,000 genetic markers that can be used to trace inheritance.
- Human gene map-leadership of an international consortium to develop a unified gene map establishing the locations of human genes, which has so far identified the sites of more than 16,000 human genes (more than half mapped at the Whitehead Institute).
"The young scientists responsible for these projects have surpassed every goal we set for them," said Dr. Lander. "Their efforts have greatly advanced our ability to search for the genetic origins of human disease and provided the foundation necessary to begin decoding the exact sequence of all 3 billion DNA letters that make up a human being." (In April 1996, Whitehead was one of six US centers selected by NCHGR to begin sequencing the human genome.)
Under the direction of Dr. Thomas Hudson, Whitehead's human genome mapping group created a comprehensive physical map of the human genome containing more than 15,000 landmarks in little more 12 months, greatly accelerating completion of one of the major goals of the Human Genome Project.
"Dr. Hudson's group is largely responsible for the fact that we met the international goal of a 30,000-landmark map two years ahead of schedule," Dr. Lander said.
The mouse genome mapping group, co-directed by Drs. William F. Dietrich and Joyce Miller, also came through ahead of schedule and under budget, Dr. Lander added. Mapping and sequencing the mouse genome is essential, he explained, because much of human disease research is done in laboratory models and the best model available is the mouse. Even before it was finished, the Whitehead's mouse genetic map contributed to the analysis of previously intractable genetic traits, providing new insights into the origins of asthma, hypertension, colon cancer, diabetes and epilepsy.
Whitehead's success has resulted in part from strong commitments to both informatics and robotics, Dr. Lander said. The Whitehead informatics group, headed by Dr. Lincoln Stein, has created innovative systems for capturing and analyzing new data, monitoring data accuracy, and guiding both scientists and machines on the optimal setup of new experiments. In addition, the group has established a Web site that makes all data from the Whitehead Genome Center available to the public via the World Wide Web as soon as it has been checked for accuracy.
The achievements in robotics are even more dramatic, including two successive generations of robots for setting up and carrying out the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assay, and three generations of a fully integrated robotics system for DNA sequencing.
The former, the Genomatron, boosted the Whitehead's output from 6,000 PCR reactions per day to 300,000 and played a vital role in the development of the comprehensive genome maps described above. The sequencing robot, called the Sequatron, carries out DNA purification and sequencing setup without human supervision. Whitehead intends to build a collection of Sequatrons capable of generating enough DNA samples to sequence the human genome in three years.
More than 100 biotech CEOs participated in the voting process for the achievement award. The Biotech Meeting, now in its 10th year, is a private meeting held for biotech company CEOs and is co-hosted by the firms Burrill & Company in San Francisco and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in Menlo Park, CA.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 15, 1997.