Clyde Hutchison became a biologist almost by accident. Joanne Thomson learns that physics' loss is genomics' gain
Clyde Hutchison became a biologist almost by accident. Joanne Thomson learns that physics’ loss is genomics’ gain.
Clyde Hutchison is a distinguished professor at the J. Craig Venter Institute, San Diego, US, and is also Kenan Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His research focuses on the search for improved methods to learn about gene function from DNA sequence information.
Why did you decide to become a scientist?
My father was a chemist. He called himself a chemical physicist. He worked on paramagnetic resonance absorption problems and did some really major work in that area. He always encouraged me to learn about science. As a physical scientist, he had a tendency to think of biology as a bit on the messy side. I think in the end, though, he came to like what I did.
You did an undergraduate degree in physics. How did you make the transition to synthetic biology?
I knew I wanted to be a scientist but I didn’t know I wanted to be a biologist. I was also considering a maths major but it came down to office hours. At Yale there was a particular day that you had to declare your major field of study and before you did so, you had to go and speak to the advisor in that field. The physics advisor’s office hours ended later than the maths advisor’s so that’s why I chose physics.
The reason I’m now a biologist is that I had scholarship support from the university and I had to take a part-time job at the university in repayment for their support. I’d applied and got a job with an astrophysicist, manning a radiotelescope that was looking for people talking from stars. I had the job all lined up and was excited about it but when I came back from summer vacation, they’d given the job to someone else despite of what I thought was a really firm arrangement. The people who arranged the jobs wanted me to help out in the accounting department and I pleaded with them to let me do something scientific. They came up with a job in the biophysics department so I went and worked in the lab of Harold Morowitz, who was one of the first people to be interested in microplasms. I worked on bacterial spores with a postdoctoral fellow called Carl Woese, who is most famous for his discovery of the third branch of life, the archaea. Working with him got me very interested in biology. When I graduated, I applied to the division of biology at Caltech and went to work there, which was a wonderful experience.
You now work at the J Craig Venter Institute. What are you working on at the moment?
Over the last number of years, we’ve been building bacterial genomes by chemical synthesis, starting with the sequence that is stored in the computer, building that genome as a molecule then installing the molecule in a living cell so that it takes over the cell and controls all its activities. This is model for building designer genomes with useful properties.
What sort of thing could these synthetic cells be used for?
It is just a much more flexible way for doing the things we do in conventional genetics. The cells could be used to make new products, drugs and bulk chemicals. When you build something by synthesis it gives you great flexibility of design rather than just hodge-podging together pre-existing pieces.
We are working on trying to adapt this technology to useful bacteria and one type is cyanobacteria, which groups are engineering to produce fuel molecules. If we learn to completely synthesise these bacterial genomes we’ll have great flexibility in designing new ones that could be useful in fuel generation.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
The synthetic cell work I’ve already mentioned is probably the most important thing I’ve worked on. I’m proud too of the work I did with Fred Sanger on the sequencing of the bacteriophage
X genome. Also, I developed site-directed mutagenesis in collaboration with Michael Smith. Michael Smith and I met in Sanger’s lab and we used
X174, because it was the only DNA molecule we had the complete sequence of in those days. We used it as a tool to engineer nucleotide changes and amino acid changes in proteins.
I spent most of my career at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I worked a lot with Marshall Edgell and I am very proud of some of the things that we did. We discovered the major class of transposable elements in the mammalian genome, called L1 or LINEs-1. It is a retrotransposable element that transposes by reverse transcription of its own transcript. It, or fragments of it, constitute a major part of the mammalian genome.
What do you do in your spare time?
Every Thursday evening I play the piano in Bernini’s Bistro in La Jolla from 7 until 9 pm. I play mainstream, post-bop jazz. I have a partly synthetic group called Clyde & Mac where Mac is a MacBook Air that plays bass and some drums.
If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be?
I came to the piano too late in life. If I had started earlier, who knows what would have happened. Our group leader, Ham Smith, at the Venter Institute thinks I would have been a good lawyer because I have a very legalistic interpretation of English text.