Big bio

How a surge in the power of technology is shaking up bioscience research


Rick Myers, PhD, first started examining the genetic differences between people more than 20 years ago. At that time he developed technology allowing him to survey a single genetic difference, called a SNP, between a few different people in the lickety-split time frame of a few days.

Related story:

Tech tonics

Recently, members of his lab examined 550,000 SNPs in 24 people in a single day. Ah, technology.

Myers is now professor and chair of genetics and director of the Stanford Human Genome Center, which helped sequence several chromosomes as part of the Human Genome Project.

“The ease of doing genetic research has changed dramatically,” Myers says. Scientists now can do experiments that before seemed impossibly labor intensive — like finding the genetic underpinnings of complex diseases.

Myers’ lab is part of several multi-lab and multi-institutional collaborations seeking the genetic roots of bipolar disease, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease and cancer. “We couldn’t do this kind of work without being able to analyze hundreds of thousands of SNPs in thousands of people,” Myers says.

The ability to do science on this scale is due to a technology revolution. In every field of medical research new devices have increased the scale of science. Mysteries that once shrouded the activity of a single gene or protein can now be answered for every gene in a tissue or every protein in a cell.

This upward mobility comes at a price. Research that asks big questions requires big money to fund the equipment. And this leap in costs comes at a time when the National Institutes of Health budget remains flat, notes John Boothroyd, PhD, who stepped down last year as the medical school’s senior associate dean for research. For instance, funding for Myers’ big SNP study came from a foundation, not NIH.

The demand for high-priced machinery is altering the sociology of bioscience. Nowadays biologists often try to hook up with multi-investigator projects since such proposals are more likely to win big equipment grants. Funders see “big biology” projects as a way to get more bang for their bucks.

Ganging up with like-minded researchers is relatively easy at a major research institution like Stanford. But at schools with just a few strong bioscientists, such collaborations are hard to arrange. As a result, equipment grants are more difficult to come by. And without the equipment, research grants are less likely to follow.

As the president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, which represents close to 85,000 scientists, Leo Furcht, MD, has his eye on the trend toward big science. He sees a day when the most expensive equipment is centralized, much like supercomputers, cyclotrons or telescopes. But he’d like to see the individual investigators continue to get the largest slice of the NIH-funding pie.

“There is a place for big science, and the tools that are necessary should be available. However, that shouldn’t come at the expense of the individual investigator launching a career,” Furcht says.

Rather than haves and have-nots, Furcht hopes that centralized technology moves everyone into the haves camp. Only that way can all researchers contribute toward the big questions being answered by big science.


Comments? Contact Stanford Medicine at

 Back To Contents