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Bioinformatics Here Lies Molecular Informatics

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When Applied Biosystems announced the shedding of 500 employees at the beginning of this year, the closing of its Santa Fe, NM, site — obtained through its purchase of Molecular Informatics in 1998 — was not even a footnote. And it’s no surprise: the 50-some staffers there compromised less than one percent of ABI’s total workforce.

The layoffs weren’t a shock to those affected: “Obviously when they mentioned site closures, we were suspect,” says one recently laid-off employee. “We always knew we were vulnerable because of our geographic position and [because] we didn’t have any ownership of the product lines.” The informatics team reported to ABI VP of engineering Michael McConnell and collaborated with offices in San Jose and Foster City on software for ABI’s SDS line of genetic sequence detection instruments and LIMS technology, and with Houston on proteomics instrument software.

In addition to a “pretty generous severance,” says the employee, “some of us got 30-day stay packages to transfer our projects, other folks got 60-day stay packages.” By the end of January just seven employees were left.

But what about the software that ABI, then known as Perkin-Elmer, said was the primary reason for absorbing Molecular Informatics five years ago? MII was spun out of the National Center for Genome Resources in 1997 mainly to commercialize a suite of products called BioMerge, a sequence database that allowed users to perform various analyses and queries against proprietary and public data.

With the creation of Celera, it became clear why ABI would want a sequence database technology. But in the end, Celera never adapted BioMerge. Instead it developed its own system to deliver its data to subscribers. It was not doing well as a distinct product either. “We’ve been trying to kill it for quite a while because the revenue stream wasn’t worth the effort,” says one of the recently sacked employees. “And with the closure of this office it will be killed.”

Founded in 1994 with the help of Senator Pete Domenici, NCGR was an attempt to keep New Mexico in the genome database game after Los Alamos lost GenBank to NCBI. Meanwhile, the sale of MII to PE changed the direction of NCGR’s work. The terms prohibited the center from developing tools for human genome analysis for three years. As a result, NCGR switched gears and focused on agricultural genomics.

The closure may be just a blip on ABI’s SEC filing, but for the greater bioinformatics community it is the mark of the end of an era. And for New Mexico it is the final nail in the coffin of once hopeful dreams of a bustling bioinformatics industry. R.I.P.

— Aaron J. Sender

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