Meet MIT Professor Manolis Kellis, a Pioneer of the Human Genome

Professor Manolis Kellis

By Sylvia Klimaki

What are the actual mechanics of different diseases? When somebody has Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia or an immune disorder, what is really going on in their body? Why are certain individuals prone to becoming obese and others are not?

These are difficult questions which most of us wouldn’t know how to begin to answer. But issues such as these are what Greek Professor Manolis Kellis, from the world-renowned Masachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and his team, are attempting to solve.

Kellis, a professor of computer science at MIT and the head of the MIT Computational Biology Group, is known for his vital contributions to human genomics, epigenomics, and comparative genomics. It is through his work on understanding the human genome that Kellis is making significant advancements in the understanding of human disease, including many brain disorders.

Humans as the descendants of the first digital computer

The scientist decided to delve into computational biology since it combines his love of math, computer science, and nature. Kellis sees humans in a way as descendants of the first digital computer, since at the core of each of our cells, the code that makes our cells run is digital, encoded in the four letters of DNA, which decide how our body will respond to internal or external stimuli.

When asked why he studies biology using computers, Kellis instantly responded: “We like to think that humans invented the first digital computer. That is not true, humans are the descendants of the first digital computer — every single one of our cells has a digital code, it has labels and tags and inputs and outputs.

“At a cellular level, there is no more fundamental science than computational biology, because we are using computing to understand computing,” he explains.

As the saying goes, Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For Kellis, we humans are the most beautiful of machines, and they “if examined carefully, can teach us so many things about system design, feedback and control, about coordination, about the world we live in. We inhabit this perfect machine, and the more we understand, the more we are in awe of it.”

For the computational scientist, the human brain goes one step further, and transcends the complexity of even the DNA code which encodes its behavior and structure. He sees the human brain as one of the most complex entities in the entire universe. Undoubtedly, this is what has drawn him to dedicate his career to studying it.

Amusingly, other scientific fields do not appear to have been complex enough to draw Kellis’ attention. As he says, “Atoms and black holes are quite simple by comparison; they follow simple rules, there are only so many equations that describe most of the cosmos. But if you look at the human brain, it defies all of these equations, it challenges our understanding of complexity.”

World on the verge of yet another scientific revolution

According to Kellis, we are on the verge of yet another scientific revolution, one which will focus on the understanding of the human psyche. “If you consider Greek tragedy, which has been unsurpassed for thousands of years in its ability to dissect the human psyche and analyze to such excruciating detail the wills and wants, desires and motivations and all the fundamental concepts of the human essence.

“We are now reaching a point where we have the ability to analyze these traits and desires to a neural level and understand at a cellular level what is really happening in the brain,” Kellis declares.

It almost sounds as if Kellis is suggesting we are one day going to be able to identify the biological traits which determined the fate of so many characters in the genre of Greek Tragedy.

For example, he says, “with all these psychiatric disorders, researchers can look into the brain and understand how the different regions of the brain are being affected. Schizophrenia and psychosis for example — all we knew up until now was purely based on observation and reasoning.

“But now we can see at a cellular level what underlines these types of behavior, what happens to the different regions of the brain, and therefore have a better understanding of the needs of the human beings,” the researcher explains.

Kellis also believes this new scientific revolution will advance our understanding of how one’s mindset influences the body, and how practices such as meditation, prayer and placebo effects impact our brains. “If you look at the placebo effect, the reason why it is so hard for drugs to succeed in clinical trials is because the placebo effect works so well.

“How can you trick someone into getting better by giving them a sugar pill when they think they’re getting a drug? Can we leverage that response more systematically to help cure a range of complex disorders of the brain and mind?” he asks rhetorically.

“Our brain has capabilities beyond what we can comprehend, so if we could understand the molecular interventions that are triggered in the brain when people meditate or pray or take a sugar pill, it could have transformative effects, not just for one person but for the whole of society,” he adds.

It has already been discovered that for Alzheimer’s sufferers for example, having a purpose in life helps to lessen the ravages of the disease. “How do you ‘encode’ purpose at the molecular level? We have no idea at the moment, and yet it impacts every single aspect of our bodies and of our lives,” Kellis says.

Boston is the modern Athens of the Golden Age

Kellis’ love of Ancient Greek tragedy and the emotional complexity of its characters is perhaps what inspired him down his career path, but his love of Greece is not enough to take him back to his homeland just yet.

Born and raised in Greece until the age of 12, Dr. Kellis believes it is unlikely he will move back to Greece anytime soon. “Boston is the modern Athens of the Golden Age, the place where so many disciplines are being shaped. The people I interact with are changing astrophysics, math, finance, biology, computer science, medicine, artificial intelligence, helping transform the world.

“If I lived in the golden age of Ancient Athens, I would be crazy to move out then, so why should I move out of Boston now?” he asks.

When queried as to how we can restore Athens to its former status as a global metropolis again, Kellis responded: “It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Greece should have both a short-term and a long-term vision.

He concluded, “People need to think of what will make Greece attractive not only for Greeks but for any citizen of the world. We need to think of the centers of excellence that will help Greece become a world center.”

For more information on Dr. Kellis’ groundbreaking work, please visit the MIT website www.compbio.mit.edu.

Sylvia Klimaki is a writer based in London.