Steve Henikoff, haloed by grow lights, crouches to examine a tray of potted plants in a closet-sized room near his lab. They are weeds in many parts of the world, but here they are the focus for groundbreaking genetic research that may help prevent and treat cancer.
When Henikoff arrived at the Hutchinson Center in 1981, he didn't know plant research was on his horizon. Nor did he foresee that he would invent widely used computer programs and a wealth of other research tools that would foster breakthroughs in many areas of medicine. Today, he may be one of the world's most accomplished and respected geneticists, but his wide-ranging scientific curiosity has never waned.
"It's never been routine. Science isn't that way," he said. "You might get good at one thing, but science is always changing, so you can't just sit back and relax and say, 'I'll do this over and over again.' That's what makes it so much fun."
Both inventor and researcher, he doesn't find the diversity of his scientific interests peculiar. Inventions arise naturally. When he encounters a problem in his own research, he looks for a way to solve it. Eventually, a useful tool "takes on a life of its own."
For instance, Henikoff and his wife, Jorja, developed a method in 1992 that improved comparisons between protein sequences. That method now operates in biology's most popular tool, BLAST, which compares newly sequenced proteins against all known proteins. The program has yielded tremendous insight into the relatedness among all living things, making it possible to uncover the roots of human diseases like cancer through the study of simpler, easier-to-understand organisms.
Henikoff's research has long focused on epigenetics-investigating how patterns of gene activity can change and then propagate through generations, without any corresponding change in the DNA sequence. He uses plants to study these heritable changes, which are reversible, suggesting the tantalizing possibility that some aspects of cancer could also be reversed.
Henikoff was elected in 2005 to the National Academy of Sciences, the highest honor for a U.S. scientist. But when discussing his career, he isn't likely to revel in his prestigious accomplishments. Asked what scientific finding he's most proud of, he offered a surprising answer: "Yesterday we had some interesting results," he said. "Literally, yesterday was a very good day."