Development of the Automated DNA Sequencer

  • Medicine & Health
  • 1986

In the early 1980s, longtime Caltech biology professor Leroy Hood had conceptualized an instrument that would automate the slow, labor-intensive process of sequencing DNA. The tedious hand process, which required scientists to repeat multiple steps using hazardous radioactive elements, made it impossible to read any more than a tiny portion of any genetic string. Hood’s new procedure substituted safe fluorescent dyes for the radioactive chemicals and used lasers and computers rather than human eyes to read the DNA patterns. Yet when he applied to the federal National Institutes of Health for grants to help his team create the planned machine, Hood reports that his grant proposals “got some of the worst scores the NIH had ever given. People said it was impossible, or they said ‘Why do this? Grad students can do it more easily.’”

To get around this roadblock, Hood turned to what he called “a really interesting consortium of philanthropy and business.” The philanthropy came from legendary donor Sol Price. The originator of the warehouse superstore concept that eventually produced Costco and Sam’s Club, and an early creator of Real Estate Investment Trusts, Price poured himself into numerous charities after making his fortune in southern California.

“When the NIH funding didn’t work out for the automated sequencer, I went to Sol, and he ended up giving me $200,000 a year for two or three years,” says Hood, who describes Price as “really smart and flexible, and excited by innovation and new ideas…. He was a hard-nosed, critical guy who asked tough questions. But when he was done, he was satisfied, and he more or less gave me a blank check to spend as I felt needed. And that was enormously valuable.” With the philanthropic money, Hood launched his work on the automated sequencer, and then went to the Monsanto Company and used Price’s donation to leverage from the firm another $200,000-per-year for-profit investment.

By June 1986, Hood had his machine on the market. With continual improvements it was soon capable of sequencing 150 million DNA base pairs on a fully automated basis. Without this breakthrough, the sequencing of the human genome would not have been feasible. “The combination of philanthropy and industry really led to the conceptual and early-stage development of the automated sequencer. Had it not been for those things, progress would have been delayed for an unknown period of time… . It was a critical catalytic moment, and philanthropy was there to push it forward.”