Science and technology are moving at an accelerated speed, especially in the field of genetics.
"What's been really fun about working in this field for the last couple of decades is how rapidly the technologies have evolved and become more powerful," says Leonid Kruglyak, PhD. "Experiments that you couldn't have conceived of at all — or that would have seemed like complete science fiction 10 years ago — are now routine and easy."
Dr. Kruglyak, who is chair of the Department of Human Genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA (DGSOM), has witnessed three generations of major technological innovations. "It's changed everything we do and what people in the field do," he says.
Biology was not part of Dr. Kruglyak's early beginnings. He received his undergraduate and doctorate degrees in theoretical physics, and later, during his postdoctoral training, he retrained as a quantitative geneticist. "I originally applied computational approaches and techniques I learned as a physicist to problems in the genome project and human genetics, and later, after I started my first faculty job, I added a laboratory-bench research component."
Human genetics, the youngest basic science department at DGSOM, is dedicated to turning mountains of raw genetic data into a detailed understanding of the molecular pathogenesis of human disease. Dr. Kruglyak finds his theoretical physics background helpful in genetic studies.
"We ask fundamental questions and to try to tackle them in the simplest possible setting. At every stage of our work, from experimental design to interpretation, there is a lot of computation necessary to take full advantage of the large-scale data sets that modern technologies generate."
The foundation of Dr. Kruglyak's experimental research emerged in the late 1990s with DNA-microarray technology and has evolved more recently with the development of DNA sequencing and editing. "Not that long ago, you needed several giant research centers with hundreds of instruments, large numbers of technical staff, years of work and hundreds of millions of dollars to generate an initial sequence of a single human genome. Now, that's been replaced with bench-top instruments in your lab that enable you to sequence a genome in a few days for a couple of thousand dollars."
Even newer techniques like CRISPR-Cas9 allow Dr. Kruglyak and his fellow researchers to edit the genome by altering sections of DNA. Experiments that were once near to impossible are now practical.
Dr. Kruglyak sees a future that is less and less limited by tools. He says the development of new technologies and insights will help those who study specific diseases figure out which genes are the key players. "Once you know that, there are immediate implications for things like diagnosis, as well as a starting point for the long and painstaking process of looking for new treatments."