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From Stickleback to interactome
BETHESDA, Md.—The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) in late summer announced two grants illustrating the diversity of genomics research: one program, at Stanford University, investigates vertebrate diversity through stickleback fish. The other, based at Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI), uses a viral model to consider how genetic variations and pathogens combine to induce disease states in cellular networks.
The two grants were made through NHGRI's Centers of Excellence in Genomic Science (CEGS) program, with $16 million to DCFI and $14 million to Stanford. The varied topics are no accident. Although Jeff Schloss, NHGRI's program director, technology development, says the Institute tends to fund highly focused projects like large-scale sequencing or developing HapMaps, CEGS aims for ideas "that will have a large impact in genomics that can't be done under standard grants programs" or that makes a large and exportable advance in genomics, as did microarrays.
Although Schloss says science drives the program, CEGS also carries a training element, expecting institutions to involve post doctoral researchers and graduate students. "Many of these grants," says Schloss, "have ended up being at institutions where there's already a significant presence of genomics, but even so, they've helped to reinforce or strengthen the genomics presence and the ability to advance genomics research more on campus." Projects should also involve people from minority communities: beyond drawing more minorities into science, Schloss says, NHGRI has selfish reasons. Genomics research inherently addresses genetics in various communities, meaning scientists need to work effectively with societal expectations that may stigmatize "bad genes" or affect healthcare.
With the Stanford program entering its second five-year grant period, David Kingsley, professor of developmental biology, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Stanford School of Medicine, has seen results through the minority program. "Because we have an existing program," he says, "we have seen the successes that come from students doing research, writing papers, and being about to talk about that in their essays and interviews" when they apply to graduate programs in medicine and other fields.
Kingsley sees stickleback fish—which are studied in dozens of labs around the world—as a valuable new model for investigating long-standing problems of genetic mechanisms with potential relevance to humans.
"This is an incredibly exciting time in genetics and genomics," says Kingsley. "Large-scale sequencing has made it possible to see the genome of lots of different animals, including humans. I think that it's still very hard to stare at a genome sequence and know what all the base pairs are doing, and studies of model organisms are going to help us interpret and sort through that flood of genome information that's coming from the genome projects. So genomics plus genetics is much more powerful than either one alone."
Meanwhile, Marc Vidal, associate professor of genetics at DCFI and Harvard Medical School, says that the DFCI CEGS builds on the Center for Cancer Systems Biology, founded in 2004 to encourage more integrative work between scientists wanting to understand disease in the post-genomic era. He hopes to see value to drug discovery from research into how gene products, proteins, RNA, and other macromolecules interact within cells by analyzing the human interactome network and protein-protein interactions as well as how genetic differences between people affect their reactions to environmental perturbations.