Leroy Hood: Discovery Science  pg. 2

“The idea is that all the elements of a biological system can be defined and put into a database,” he says. “Sequencing the human genome and placing the sequence in a database is pure discovery science…, which raises the possibility of globally analyzing the behavior of all human genes in, for instance, normal cells versus cancer cells.”

Discovery science, Hood says, stands in contrast to hypothesis-driven science—the tried and true approach that has prevailed for years, where a hypothesis is formulated and experiments carried out to test that hypothesis.

Though his proposed interdisciplinary, systems approach to biological discovery is revolutionary, traditional hypothesis-driven methods have not been abandoned. Rather, they are embedded in the new approach, which advocates figuring out what happens normally within a system—a signaling pathway in a cell, for example—then disrupting that system repeatedly, making note of what changes occur. If you know how the system can break down, Hood says, you should be able to figure out how to fix it.

“Biology is infinitely complicated, so what you have to do is use hypotheses to shed light on global studies of very selected aspects of complexity. Then you can start to sort out what it’s about.”
Leroy Hood, M.D., Ph.D.
Photo by Brian Smale
Supported by both private and public funding, the non-profit institute currently has a staff of 180 employees—about half the ultimate goal—and is engaged in 10 industrial and three academic partnerships. The nine faculty members run the gamut from astrophysicist to immunologist to mathematician to protein chemist to computer scientist, all learning how to speak each other’s language and apply their tools to understanding biology’s complexity.

“At first blush, they all think biology’s easy, and that they all have the ways to help us out,” says Hood. “But in most instances, they are useful only in direct proportion to how well they understand biology.

“These people can develop techniques and computational tools, but the development has to be driven by biological frontiers. There are all sorts of fancy tools that let you measure things, but who cares if the things aren’t relevant? You have to figure out how to measure important things rather than measure anything.”

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