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05/12/1998 07:00:00

Caltech Announces $100 million Drive For Biological Sciences

PASADENA—The California Institute of Technology has formally announced the goal of raising $100 million in a campaign to support new initiatives in the biological sciences.

The Biological Sciences Initiative (BSI) will allow the Institute to create approximately a dozen new faculty positions in biology and related disciplines, construct a new biology building on campus, develop new joint training programs with medical schools, and target several major biological questions that can be answered only through sustained research in state-of-the-art facilities.

"We intend to keep Caltech at the forefront of research in the biological sciences," says Camilla Frost, cochair of the BSI and member of the Caltech Board of Trustees.

According to Caltech president David Baltimore, a Nobel Prize–winning biologist, the campaign is designed to strengthen Caltech's ability to advance scientific knowledge and pave the way for new technologies.

"The 21st century will be the Golden Age of biology. We will see advances in both fundamental understanding of nature and medical technology for the treatment of disease.

"Our campaign is ultimately aimed at complex questions like the nature of consciousness, how memory and learning operate at the molecular level, how cells grow and die, and how genetic networks function," Baltimore says. "To answer these questions, we need the modern resources that only a major fundraising effort can provide for Caltech."

According to Ben Rosen, the other cochair of the BSI, approximately one-third of the $100 million has already been raised.

Caltech has a long history of biological innovation. For example, Thomas Hunt Morgan, Caltech's first biology chair, early in the century demonstrated that genes are linked in a series on chromosomes and are responsible for determining hereditary traits. A few decades later, Max Delbrück began studying bacteriophages (a class of viruses that infect bacteria), and in doing so became one of the first to apply the quantitative methods of physics to the study of genes.

More recently, Caltech's Ed Lewis won the 1995 Nobel Prize, for studying how genetic mutations affect early development.

The BSI's scientific program therefore furthers the investments Caltech has made in the biological sciences since the 1920s. According to Mel Simon, chair of the Division of Biology at Caltech, the campaign will provide significant impetus for "understanding the basic principles that underlie the behavior of genetically driven systems."

"If you ask what the world will look like in the year 2050, the answer is probably that we will have mastered how complex biological systems work," says Simon. "And we will be able to repair dysfunction in our own bodies and minds and use synthetic genetic approaches to maintain a natural and sustaining environment."

Rather than singling out specific scientific goals, Simon says that the BSI is aimed at further extending the remarkable advances that have been made in the past in biology in understanding how the brain works and how human beings develop.

"This is the next step in the evolution of biology at Caltech," he says. "The BSI will enable us to go beyond descriptions of genes and genetic networks to an understanding of how they function. We will go beyond the traditional disciplines and integrate our approaches with those of our colleagues in chemistry, physics, and engineering to achieve a more intimate understanding of how biology works.

"We see a broad range of possibilities that will clearly lead to new breakthroughs and new technology."