WALNUT CREEK, Calif. – The federal government's response to last month’s terrorist attacks on the US may result in the Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute receiving additional funding over the next year as it positions itself to develop tools to deflect bioterrorism.
JGI Director Trevor Hawkins said his department has become a national resource for sequencing microbial genomes that could be used as biological weapons. Hawkins said that the JGI has already complied with requests from two of its component institutions, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, to sequence the genomes of so-called neighbors of microbes believed to be biologically destructive.
“When you sequence three or four genomes that are closely related to a [destructive] bacterium, you learn quite a bit about the pathway,” Hawkins said in an interview. The pathway information, in turn, can help researchers prepare emergency vaccines, medications, and other remediation against a potential bacterial threat.
JGI sequenced drafts of neighbor genomes at its facility here and forwarded the results to Lawrence Livermore or Los Alamos for completion. Hawkins said his department’s location in a residential area, together with obvious security reasons, forbids it from sequencing the entire genome of a potentially destructive microbe.
One such microbe, Bacillus anthracis , is the bug behind anthrax, which defense analysts believe is the most likely bacterial disease to be released by terrorists.
A controversial anthrax vaccine was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1970 and has been administered to members of the US armed forces since 1998. Some researchers have argued the vaccine is unsafe and several members of the military have refused to be inoculated.
Still, the Department of Defense has reportedly spent nearly $100 million to support production of the anthrax vaccine.
Hawkins wouldn’t specify if the JGI’s previous work was anthrax-related, saying instead that “sometimes it is better not to know” the target microbe.
In October 2000, the JGI sequenced 15 bacterial genomes it believes can be used for bioterror. It also sequenced in one day the “supergerm” Enterococcus faecium organism, which is a leading cause of nosocomial infections. Hawkins said these results reflect his department’s ability to play an expanded role in the fight against bioterrorism should the need arise.
The overall JGI budget for 2002 is set for $62 million, a modest increase from 2001, even though the department began its 2002 fiscal year on Monday under continued resolution from last year’s $60 million budget. Hawkins expects the new budget to be finalized in mid-November. Until then, some hiring decisions will be delayed as will the purchase of an additional 14 sequencing instruments.
Hawkins said overall staffing at JGI’s four institutions would remain at approximately 250 people, and their funding would remain at 2001 levels. In a minor adjustment, some of the staff at the Walnut Creek facility would be relocated to a new functional genomics group.
Last year, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory received $33.6 million in DOE funding, Lawrence Livermore $13.5 million, Los Alamos $10.7, million and Stanford University $4.9 million, according to Hawkins. Stanford’s lab sequenced human chromosomes 5, 16, and 19.
In addition to sequencing DNA relevant to the understanding the human genome, JGI also sequences microbes for Department of Energy responsibilities in carbon sequestration and alternative sources of energy.