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Salk Colleagues Remember Glen Evans, a Pioneer in Synthetic Biology

Glen Evans

Glen Evans

Glen Evans, a multi-talented scientist and former Salk faculty member, died September 6 of multiple systems atrophy (MSA), a rare, incurable degenerative neurological disease.

Evans, 57, spent 11 productive years on the faculty at the Salk (1983-94), much of that time contributing to the national Human Genome Project.

"Glen was a talented and energetic scientist who was deeply committed to improving human health," recalled Walter Eckhart. "He was particularly talented at applying modern technology to important biological problems."

Always reaching for the next biomedical frontier, Evans had a keen understanding of "big science" and the processes to accomplish it, said Joanne Chory.

He established a federally funded gene sequencing center at Salk, running a large group even as a junior professor. Chory also recalls that Evans seemed particularly driven, even by the high-achieving standards of the Salk Institute. His chromosome 11 mapping center (started at the Salk in 1990) completed its work two years ahead of schedule.

Joseph Ecker did not overlap with Evans, but vividly remembers the scientist and his work from their occasional interactions regarding genome biology. Evans had a longstanding collaboration with scientists from General Atomics that was "very innovative...and way ahead of his time."

"Glen was on the leading edge of developing technology for gene synthesis," Ecker said. "He was a brilliant guy, extremely creative...and he was one of the founders of the field of synthetic biology."

Ecker said Evans developed and used lots of robotic systems well before it was commonplace to do so. "I saw his technology in action and thought, he can move mountains," Ecker recalled.

Evans earned a BA in biology from UCSD in three years and then became the first graduate of the university's combined M.D.-Ph.D. program, earning a medical degree and doctorate in chemistry in six years.

He cofounded Nanogen Inc., which became a Nasdaq-listed San Diego biotech company focusing on diagnostic chip development, and started Egea Biosciences, one of the first synthetic biology companies to create novel pharmaceuticals (later acquired by Johnson and Johnson).

After learning that he suffered from MSA in 2005, he founded the Evans Foundation for Molecular Medicine (evansfmm.org) to support MSA research education and care for others with the disease. At the time of his death, in lieu of flowers, his family suggested donations to the foundation.