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Catching Up with Some Rising Stars, the Push Toward Synthetic Biology, and the Growing Big Science Trend


Welcoming a new year often means looking back on the past to see how far we have come. In Genome Technology's February 2001 issue, we showcased 16 "rising stars of the new biology." Among them were Ewan Birney — "Britain's Bioinformatics Boy Wonder" — and Steven Brenner, who was then an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Birney earned the spotlight after writing the Ensembl genome browser for the European Bioinformatics Institute and has since won several awards for his achievements in computational biology and bioinformatics, including the Francis Crick Lecture award from the Royal Society of London in 2003.

In 2001, Brenner told GT that he was "doing exactly what he always wanted to do." Today, he runs his own lab at Berkeley, where he and his team use computational and experimental genomics to explore gene regulation, protein function, personal genomics, and structural genomics.

In the January/February 2006 issue, synthetic biology was the big story. George Church told GT he envisioned a day when designing a genome would be as easy as sketching a schematic on a computer. Last year, Craig Venter made headlines when he and his team successfully constructed a self-replicating genome and inserted it into a microbe. That led US President Barack Obama to charge the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues with the task of looking into the possibilities and risks of synthetic biology. Its December report recommended that federal agencies ought to oversee the field's regulation and funding, both to protect the public from risk and to keep researchers' efforts from being hampered.

Last February, the cover story was on the rise of "megascale science," and GT questioned whether the consortium model of research posed a threat to investigator-driven science. At the time, researchers expressed concerns that the appointment of Francis Collins to lead the National Institutes of Health would mean a bias toward "big science" because of his background as a leading member of the Human Genome Project. Collins was quick to soothe these worries, and pointed to National Human Genome Research Institute's support of R01 grants during his tenure as director.

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