Initial efforts at developing an automated DNA sequencer (1978–1981) failed because the single biologist working on this problem had little knowledge of engineering or chemistry. After three years with very little success, I assembled a team composed of a chemist (Lloyd Smith), an engineer/chemist (Mike Hunkapillar), a biologist turned computer scientist (Tim Hunkapillar), and myself.
Within a few weeks we had conceptualized the four-color chemistry approach to DNA sequencing and three years later had a prototype automated DNA sequencer.
In thinking about this experience and that of my own lab, which pioneered a variety of technologies, I came to the conclusion that there should be a new type of cross-disciplinary biology department where biologists, chemists, computer scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and physicists are assembled to attack hard biological problems through developing the technologies and analytical tools necessary to solve them.
The imperative is that the needs of frontier biology should dictate which technologies are developed and these, in turn, would specify the nature of the analytical tools required (biology drives technology drives analytical tool development).
With the help of Bill Gates, I moved in 1992 from Caltech to the University of Washington to establish the first cross-disciplinary biology department—molecular biotechnology. We recruited cross-disciplinary scientists—and over the next eight years achieved a number of successes.
Ruedi Aebersold and John Yates developed some of the first fundamental techniques in the emerging field of proteomics. Ger van den Engh pioneered a multiparamenter, high-speed cell sorter. My group developed the ink-jet DNA synthesizer for DNA arrays, and Phil Green developed the key assembly and quality-assessment software for the Human Genome Project. Also, we had two of the 16 human genome sequencing centers.
This success was a remarkable testament to the power of cross-disciplinary biology. I had planned to use the department of molecular biotechnology as a cross-disciplinary foundation for building a systems biology institute. Unfortunately, the bureaucracy of a state university hindered the development of some of the fundamental new requirements for creating a systems biology institute. I resigned from the university in 2000 to co-found the independent Institute for Systems Biology.