24 Broad Institute DNA Scientists Were Laid Off on Tuesday

Twenty-four MIT employees were fired yesterday morning from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Their jobs have been made redundant by new technology, the institute said in a press release.

These may be the first mass firings since MIT announced its “hiring slowdown” in November 2008, although the Broad Institute (pronounced BRODE) took care to say that the layoffs were the result of a technology shift and not related to the global recession. A spokesman from the MIT News Office could not confirm whether any other mass layoffs had occurred at MIT since November.

The fired scientists and technicians operated machinery that read the genetic sequence of strands of DNA, a research technology used by such endeavors as the Human Genome Project. A “next-generation” approach of sequencing DNA can work a hundred times more efficiently than the current technology, but mastering that approach requires learning entirely new techniques.

The layoffs mirror a similar action by the J. Craig Venter Institute, in Rockville, MD, which in early December 2008 announced that it had fired 29 staff whose work had been supplanted by machines. The press release was subtitled “New, More Efficient Technologies Require Less Machines, Less Space and Fewer People to Run.”

“We, like most other sequencing centers, have been slowly replacing older generation, Sanger sequencing technologies with newer machines,” wrote founder J. Craig Venter in the press release. “In some cases one new DNA sequencing machine can now do the work of 100 older generation machines,” Venter wrote.

The MIT layoffs were “not a decision that is made lightly or happily,” said Broad Communications Director Fintan R. Steele. The workers’ obsolescence arose as a problem only weeks ago, he said. It was not clear for how long Broad had been using the machines which made the workers obsolete.

“We’re kind of at the mercy of the technology changes,” he said.

On Tuesday morning, Broad community members read an e-mail from director Eric S. Lander announcing the decision to fire the 24 workers. Lander was away on personal travel and could not be reached for comment yesterday.

A Broad spokeswoman provided a statement late Tuesday afternoon explaining the firings as part of a move toward “actively developing and optimizing the use of next-generation high-throughput sequencing technologies,” which “require substantially different capabilities and resources on a different scale than the traditional technologies they are replacing.” The fired employees were proficient in technologies that the Broad Institute no longer needed, according to the press release.

According to the Broad press release, the firings are “unrelated to the recent widespread economic problems” and are instead “a reflection of the changes in DNA sequencing technologies, which require us to invest our sequencing resources in different ways.”

Venter also sought to distance its layoffs from the recession: “The reduction in staff announced today is a direct result of a technology shift and is not a reflection of the tough economic times that we are all facing in the United States today,” the December press release said.

Until last year, most modern DNA sequencing machines read at most about a hundred different sequences of DNA base pairs at a time. But “next-generation” machines which became prominent last year can read millions of sequences at once. While the old machines read much more slowly, they read larger sequences — perhaps hundreds of base pairs at a time. The next-generation machines read only dozens of base-pairs at a time, in clumps of millions, raising difficult questions of sequence alignment and error correction.

Elaine Mardis of Washington University in St. Louis said in a March 2008 paper that the new machines created a “revolution in genetics that … will fundamentally change the nature of genetic experimentation.”

But while science continues to advance, for now, the people trained to the old way of doing things have been left behind.