The University Record, February 15, 1999

Commission proposes strategies to improve life sciences

Editor’s Note: Deans, directors, department heads and all faculty will receive a letter via e-mail from President Lee C. Bollinger and the executive summary from the Life Sciences Commission’s report by Wednesday (Feb. 17). The full report will be available on the Web at Paper copies of the report are available from the President’s Office, 2074 Fleming Administration Building, 764-6270, or by sending an e-mail request to More complete coverage of the report and its recommendations will be published in the Feb. 22 issue of the Record.

By Jane R. Elgass

Identifying the study of complexity in living systems as an overarching theme, the Life Sciences Commission has proposed five initiatives, as well as other general strategies, for improving the quality of life sciences at the University. Two of the proposed initiatives are “cross-cutting and relevant to all life scientists,” while the others target specific interdisciplinary areas of research.

Appointed in May 1998 by President Lee C. Bollinger, the Commission was charged with assessing the state of the life sciences at the University and recommending new directions and collaborations.

Noting at the time that “we seem to be entering an era of significant exploration of life,” Bollinger added that the University “must be prepared to participate fully and preeminently in the exploration of this extraordinary advance of knowledge.”

In announcing the release of the report, Bollinger said that he, Provost Nancy Cantor and Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs Gilbert S. Omenn were “extremely pleased with the document.” Bollinger said the report would be widely distributed and comment invited from the campus. “It is now our responsibility to bring this matter to the community for thorough discussion and analysis. In the weeks ahead, Nancy Cantor, Gil Omenn and I will meet with the appropriate academic units and organizations to discuss the report and its subject. We will also find other forums in which to invite involvement of the community,” he said.

In proposing the creation of the initiatives and other actions, the Commission noted in its executive summary that, “Michigan is currently good but not outstanding in the life sciences, and the Commission’s goal is to put Michigan in a position of leadership commensurate with its standing in other scholarly arenas.”

“The field of life sciences holds extraordinary promise for the next century as it continues to push the frontiers of knowledge about every aspect of biological life,” the summary continues. “The field is undergoing a revolution in research strategies and methodologies, which will transform it into a more quantitative science and substantially enhance its theoretical underpinnings. These remarkable advances will ultimately permit the fundamental organizing principles of biology to be enunciated. While biologists have come to understand many of the critical elements of life, they are far from understanding how these elements work together to produce growing, adapting, learning, living organisms.

“This progression from understanding the individual elements to elucidating the principles of interactions between them is the study of ‘complexity’ and serves as the central theme of the Michigan Life Sciences Initiative.”

Combining empirical and theoretical approaches to the life sciences would be fundamental to the proposed Initiative, which also would emphasize translating research findings into practical applications. “The combination of theoretical and empirical approaches also defines the way to educate our students at the undergraduate and graduate levels, offering them a better understanding of the life sciences and preparing them for careers in this rapidly developing field.”

The two cross-cutting initiatives proposed by the Commission are:

• Biocomplexity Initiative.

• Biotechnology and Translational Research Initiative.

The three targeted initiatives are:

• Genomics and Complex Genetics Initiative.

• Chemical and Structural Biology Initiative.

• Cognitive Neuroscience Initiative.

These initiatives, the summary notes, “share the essential elements of investigating biological

complexity; of having theoretical, empirical and translational aspects; and of linking multiple disciplines. They also represent research areas with great opportunities for rapid scientific progress.”

Effective implementation of the initiatives, notes the Report, will require focusing on specific targets of opportunity in the near term and sustaining the effort over a prolonged period of time.

Other recommendations of the Commission include:

• Creation of several institutes or centers that are cross-disciplinary and that can serve to link the life sciences community.

• Initiatives would be built around recruitment of outstanding life scientists to join the proposed institutes and life science departments. Current faculty whose research interests are in the areas of the initiatives also could be selected.

Members of the institutes or centers would hold faculty appointments in academic departments, “enhancing the academic programs of these departments.” Other mechanisms, such as sabbaticals designed to allow faculty to spend time in the new centers or institutes, also would serve to enhance interactions with existing departments and units.

In addition, because of the highly competitive life sciences environment, the Commission recommends that the University make a concerted effort to retain current outstanding faculty as well as those recruited to take part in the new initiatives.

• Creation of a Center for Bioinformatics.

• Establishment of a series of “Michigan Workshops, focusing on interdisciplinary empirical and theoretical concepts in the life sciences.”

• Creation of several undergraduate and graduate programs, most of which are cross-disciplinary, and enhancing the role in undergraduate education for faculty outside LS&A. Creation of an Undergraduate Life Sciences Center to support the educational aspect of the new programs.

• Enhancement of core facilities and strengthening the technology transfer infrastructure.

• Creation of a Bioethics Scholarship Council that would draw on faculty campuswide who are engaged in thinking about ethical and social issues in the life sciences and related fields.

Five principles guiding the Commission’s formation of recommendations for the specific initiatives:

• They take advantage of opportunities that require a sustained research effort for many years.

• They focus on areas that will affect a broad cross-section of the U-M life sciences community.

• They represent areas in which the U-M has current strengths to build on.

• They provide important educational opportunities for students.

• They can be leveraged by outside resources, both public and private.

About the initiatives

The overall Life Sciences Initiatives would have an intrinsic multidisciplinary character as it focuses on the theoretical, empirical and applied aspects of complexity in the life sciences.

The goal of the two cross-cutting initiatives is to serve the broadest section of life scientists on campus.

• The Biocomplexity Initiative would recruit theorists, biophysicists, mathematicians and mathematically-oriented biologists to study the theoretical and quantitative aspects of the life sciences, and to develop models for integrating empirically derived information in areas ranging from the single gene to complex groups of organisms and ecosystems.

This initiative would foster integration of theory and empirical research by also recruiting faculty working in the interdisciplinary area of ecosystem sciences.

Work in this initiative would complement and be facilitated by other efforts on campus, such as the work done by the Program for the Study of Complex Systems and the study of complexity in the context of evolution, ecology and biodiversity, centered mainly in the Department of Biology, the museums and the School of Natural Resources and Environment.

• The Biotechnology and Translational Research Initiative would have two components, the first aimed at providing better biotechnologies. This component calls for the development and use of bioimaging techniques, biosensors, nanobiotechnology and engineered tissues, as well as for the creation of a Biotechnology Research Institute.

The second component would focus on translating fundamental biological knowledge into clinical applications, and depends strongly on the support of existing infrastructures that span the entire range of biological research. Continuing support of these is needed and the creation of additional cores, particularly for translational research in immunology and for mouse models of genetic disorders, is proposed.

The targeted initiatives would focus on specific areas of research in which an immediate and major impact on life sciences research can be achieved. They would also offer significant and novel educational opportunities and, because of their interdisciplinary nature, would build intellectual bridges between multiple units.

• The Genomics and Complex Genetics Initiative would deal with a rapidly expanding area of research, one in which the University had a great deal of presence internationally that has recently eroded. The field also defines a platform for activities in many arenas.

This initiative has two critical arms, one related to comparative biology with a focus on comparative genomics, the other related to molecular genetics with a focus on complex genetics and complex genetic disorders.

Research in comparative genomics would involve studies of the genomes and the associated functions of a wide range of organisms.

Research on complex molecular genetics would touch on a number of common disorders that do not lend themselves to straightforward genetic analysis and would benefit the development of gene therapy for genetically-based diseases for which drug treatment is unavailable.

Intrinsic to the study of genomics is the use of bioinformatics, an information science that in this case deals with extracting meaningful information from a huge body of genetic data.

• The Chemical and Structural Biology Initiative would focus on proteins and other large molecules in an attempt to understand their structures and relate structure to function.

Research under this initiative would address the question of complexity at the molecular level and examine the ways in which individual elements interact with other elements to form large macromolecular complexes, which lead to tissues and organs performing particular functions.

This increased understanding of molecular structure would enable the design of small molecules that could be used as research tools or as drugs to treat various diseases.

This initiative would link work in chemistry, chemical biology and biophysics with genomics, biology, pharmacy, pharmacology and all areas of medicine.

• The Cognitive Neuroscience Initiative targets one of the most complex sets of questions in the life sciences: How does one go from a collection of cells and circuits to an organism that knows, learns and, in the case of humans, uses language, reasons and has a conscious awareness of these processes.

These questions lie at the interface of the life sciences and the social sciences and humanities, and represent substantial challenges at both the empirical and theoretical levels.

Work under this initiative would provide increased understanding of disruption in cognition, present in many diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, and a number of psychiatric illnesses. Treatments of the future likely will be based on an understanding of critical genes and molecules that function in the context of specific circuits within the brain.