it is now possible to measure the activities of thousands of genes and corresponding proteins-all at once. The methods are reasonably straightforward technically, and all the necessary bits and pieces are available to anyone-for a price. A lot of razzle-dazzle and hype have accompanied this technological breakthrough. Certainly mountains of data will be generated, and many interesting insights will be gained in the next few years.

But then what? Ironically, we are blessed with almost too much of a good thing. University labs worldwide and dozens of newly spawned biotech companies are working day and night to devise methods for sorting out all this information. Meanwhile, some of the most interesting outcomes of this technology have focused not on the macro-scale events but rather on smaller, more tractable questions relating to how a few specific gene products facilitate-or prevent-one specific part of one specific cell function. This effort has been aided by computer modeling techniques and other sophisticated technologies that allow us to understand in excruciating detail how biological molecules are shaped and how this shape dictates their function.

Meanwhile, a related, perhaps even more profound, question is being approached using these same methods: how did these exquisitely intricate circuits of gene expression ever evolve in the first place? The truth is dawning that techniques and genes aren’t all there is to the story. For example, the goal of the new U.S. Department of Energy’s Genomes to Life program is “to venture beyond characterizing such individual life components as genes and other DNA sequences toward a more comprehensive, integrated view of biology at a whole-systems level.”

We are still a long, long way from a truly comprehensive understanding of even the simplest cell. With the maturing of our approaches to the relevant issues, maybe we’re due for a quantum leap in our understanding of how all we life forms are put together in so many different but basically similar designs.


Howard Hosick is a professor of genetics and cell biology in the School of Molecular Biosciences.