Billionaire Paul Allen has a new target for scientific philanthropy: Unraveling the inner workings of human cells. The Microsoft co-founder announced a $100 million, five-year grant to establish the Allen Institute for Cell Science in Seattle. The grant is one of Allen's largest, on par with the $100 million he committed earlier this year to fight Ebola in West Africa, and a $100 million grant in 2003 to establish the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Brain Science. He has since plowed an additional $300 million into the brain institute.
The goal is to better understand the teeming world inside cells, where thousands of organelles and millions of molecules interact in a dynamic ballet that researchers are just beginning to fathom. Diagrams in biology textbooks make it seem like cell structure and function have already been nailed down. Scientists have, indeed, learned a lot about different cell types, the role of organelles like the nucleus, and specific pathways, like the chain of events that causes muscle cells to contract. But there's a big gap when it comes to understanding the way cells function as a whole. "We really don't have a good idea of how normal cells work, and what goes wrong in disease. People spend careers trying to understand little parts of the cell, but nobody has stitched it together - because it's too complicated for any individual to study."
The institute will take on the challenge by combining new technologies, like microscopes that can visualize living cells in three dimensions, with enough computational firepower to make sense of the flood of data that will result. [Researchers] hope to develop computer models that mimic living cells. If they succeed, those models could also shed light on what goes haywire in cancer and other diseases and help develop cures. "Our output will be a kind of visual, dynamic atlas that shows where all of these things are in the cell and how they change over time."