Paul Allen’s latest philanthropic endeavour will be modelled on his successful brain institute. Credit: Allen Institute

Billionaire businessman and philanthropist Paul Allen plans to pump US$100 million into investigating the most basic unit of life — the cell.

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The Allen Institute for Cell Science, which was launched on 8 December, will be modelled on the Microsoft co-founder’s Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, Washington, which since 2003 has spent hundreds of millions of dollars creating a series of ‘brain atlases’ that have become go-to portals for neuroscientists interested in where particular genes are active or how distant neurons communicate.

As its first project, the latest Allen institute will develop an analogous ‘cell observatory’ that will display how a cell’s working parts, such as ribosomes, microtubules and mitochondria, interact and operate over time, says executive director Rick Horwitz. He has shuttered his cell-biology laboratory at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville to lead the institute in Seattle, Washington. The 70 or so scientific staff who will join the institute will work together on the overall goals of the observatory — to build a global view of the myriad activities inside cells — rather than on their own interests. “It’s going to be much more like the Manhattan Project,” Horwitz says.

Rick Horwitz shut down his lab at the University of Virginia to lead the Allen Institute for Cell Science. Credit: Allen Institute

Mapping every little detail of every kind of cell is a tall order, even with the backing of the world’s 27th richest person. “Our problem is that this thing could blow up on us. It could be very, very big,” Horwitz says. “We’re going to make judicious decisions to try to contain it.”

Some of those choices have already been made, after meetings this year with leading cell biologists. The institute will study human induced pluripotent stem cells (cells coaxed into an embryonic stem-cell-like state) as they differentiate in the lab into two cell types: heart-muscle cells called cardiomyocytes; and the epithelial cells that line body cavities. These tissues were chosen as much for their relevance to disease — cardiomyocytes malfunction in heart disease and most cancers arise in epithelial tissues — as for the ease with which they can be reproducibly generated and grown in the lab.

The institute’s plan is to engineer many different cell lines and determine how different cellular components respond to stimuli such as infection or exposure to a drug. These data will then guide the construction of computer models aimed at predicting how cells operate under various conditions, and all the information gained will be made available online. The institute will also distribute its cell lines so that other scientists can build on its work.

The $100 million is set to cover the first five years, after which Allen will review the observatory’s achievements and decide whether to keep on funding it, Horwitz says. The Allen brain institute was also started with $100 million and has received subsequent funding of $400 million. Allan Jones, chief executive of the brain institute, says that the cell institute’s success will be measured both in terms of research output — the brain atlases have yielded dozens of papers — and its broader impact on biology. “You need to make a high-quality product that people trust and believe in,” he says.

Just as many neuroscience studies now begin with a trawl through the Allen institute’s brain atlases, the cell observatory “will be the place cell biologists go to start projects”, says Sandra Schmid, a member of the cell institute’s advisory board and a cell biologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Ruedi Aebersold, a systems biologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, is enthusiastic about the plans, but says that it will take time to see whether the institute leaves an indelible mark on cell biology. “One would want to ask eventually, in five years, how this effort has accelerated that research,” he says.

Trey Ideker, a systems biologist at the University of California, San Diego, says predicting how cells behave is an exciting, if ambitious, goal. “My concern is that they need focus,” he says. “I think Rick’s mandate is he’s got to tell the world what the goal of this institute is.”