January 22, 2013
Text: Elke Maier
Deep in concentration, Eugene W. Myers sits in front of the screen, his glasses on his forehead. He has one e-mail to send before turning his full attention to his visitor. His austere office is on the second floor of the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics. The message he is typing is for Klaus Tschira in Heidelberg.
The new Center for System Biology, to which Eugene – “Gene” – W. Myers was appointed as Director six months ago, was established by the Max Planck Society jointly with the Klaus Tschira Foundation and the Max Planck Foundation. It is a joint project run by the Dresden-based Max PIanck Institutes for Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, and Physics of Complex Systems. Its function is to develop methods to improve our understanding of the complex molecular orchestration that takes place in animate nature.
Wearing jeans, a white shirt and a black jacket, with graying, wavy hair and dark eyes, Gene Myers looks somewhat like Hollywood actor Richard Gere. Gene Myers too is famous – not on screen, but in bioinformatics, a discipline in which he is a pioneer. He made a decisive advance in decoding the human genome circa 2001 and the BLAST software that he co-developed in 1990 is used by researchers the world over to compare DNA sequences. Already he has received numerous awards, among them the Max Planck Research Prize in 2004 and a nomination as the most influential bioinformatician by Genome Technology magazine.
Gene Myers is a passionate coffee drinker. Consequently, he suggests that we move to the cafeteria in the lobby of the Institute, where he gets himself a cappuccino and settles himself at one of the metal bistro tables. His speech is punctuated now and again with German expressions that he emphasizes with vigorous gesturing, particularly when something excites him. Which happens often – especially when he explains how, after years of sequence analysis, he came upon microscopy.
“It was in 2003 when I visited the Max Planck Institute,” he explains, sipping his cappuccino. “Tony Hyman showed me some video recordings of a cell dividing. I could see exactly how the spindle apparatus was formed and how the chromosome halves were divided equally between the two daughter cells. I was fascinated,” he says, enthusiastically. "You could see the tubular spindle proteins grow, each individual microtubule. I had no idea until then what you could see with a microscope!”
It has only recently been possible to record such images. “It’s only about ten years since we were first able to make any desired protein visible with the aid of transgenically-encoded fluorescent dyes,” Myers explains. In this way, scientists can now watch what happens in a living cell ‘live’ through the microscope.
For Gene Myers, who at the time was working at the University of California in Berkeley, the film shot by the researchers in Dresden was a crucial experience. Until then, he had mainly been concerned with the alphabetic code of the genome, developing computer programs to compare genetic sequences. Since then his focus has shifted to what is written in this code. “I want to know how genetics produce the diverse forms that life takes. For example, how do genes determine how the brain of the Drosophila fruit fly is wired and functions?”