Computational Biologist James Taylor Dies
Computational Biologist James Taylor Dies

Computational Biologist James Taylor Dies

The Johns Hopkins University professor was a co-developer of the Galaxy platform, an open-source bioinformatics tool used in labs around the world.

Lisa Winter
Lisa Winter
Apr 7, 2020

ABOVE: © WILL KIRK/JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY, © ISTOCK.COM, ESKEMAR

James Taylor, a computational biologist at Johns Hopkins University who developed a popular open-source bioinformatics platform, died April 2 at the age of 40.

Taylor is known for his work with the Galaxy Project, an open-source tool originally designed to help process data for genomicists.

Taylor earned a computer science degree in 2000 from the University of Vermont, and afterward received his PhD in the field from Penn State University in 2006, during which he helped develop the Galaxy Project. He worked as an associate professor at Emory University for five years, according to a memoriam from Johns Hopkins University. During this time, he continued his work with Galaxy, broadening it to a global scale and writing many papers about the platform that have been cited thousands of times. He left Emory and joined the staff at Johns Hopkins, where he became known for his collaborative spirit.

“He came in 2014, and it was transformational,” Vince Hilser, the chair of the biology department, says in the statement. “He was this catalyst for change, with a huge positive impact.”

Taylor was one of the founders and developers of the Galaxy Project in 2005. The platform allowed scientists to better understand genomic and epigenomic activity across individuals and species without every researcher needing to learn computer programming. Galaxy is now used to analyze bioinformatics data with increased accuracy and reproducibility in many fields, ranging from drug discovery to ecology, and has been used in nearly 9,000 scientific publications, according to its website

Since the onset of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, Taylor used his Twitter account to speak out on the need for shared genomic data and criticize the lack of proper supplies for those working on the front lines.

Throughout his career he had been involved with the National Institutes of Health’s National Human Genome Research Institute and ENCODE, a member of the National Center for Genome Analysis Scientific Advisory Board, and many others. He also co-chaired the Portal Working Group of the AnVIL Project, another cloud-based bioinformatics tool.

News of his death stunned many in the world of computational biology, spurring friends and colleagues to express their grief on social media and on the Galaxy community hub.

“Such a huge loss. James made huge contributions to open-source, accessibility, and reproducibility. Anyone who runs a bioinformatics tool on the cloud does so thanks to James’s work,” tweeted genomicist Andrew Carroll.

“His life’s pursuit was to understand how genomic information is used in normal development and how changes in the genome can dysregulate this process in disease. Further, through co-leading the Galaxy project and the Anvil project, a major thrust of James’ career has been to support the work of other scientists, especially to empower those with limited resources,” Michael Schatz, an associate professor of computer science and biology at Hopkins, recounts in Taylor’s memoriam. 

Hopkins did not have information available about Taylor’s cause of death. He is survived by his wife Meredith Greif, a sociologist who is also a professor at Johns Hopkins.