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Metspalu Puts Estonia on the Genomics Map

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Had he followed his youthful dreams of becoming a surgeon, Andres Metspalu would have missed the recognition he enjoys today as the father of the Estonian Genome Program. But while working in a molecular biology lab in the late ’70s, he received some farsighted advice. “One of my favorite professors told me that one more surgeon in Estonia wouldn’t matter,” remembers Metspalu, “but that someone who knew molecular biology would someday matter very much. So I decided to stay in the lab.”

Metspalu, 50, received his PhD while Estonia was still one of the unhappy Baltic republics tied to the Soviet Union. In the days of the iron curtain, his contacts with western scientists were few. Fax and e-mail weren’t allowed. Life as a scientist since Estonia reclaimed its independence in the early ’90s is “a hundred-fold better,” he says.

But with independence came the necessity of hard thinking about his nation’s place in science. In 1997, as a biotechnology professor at the University of Tartu in Estonia, he assessed the situation. “There was no way we could compete with the world with Estonia’s limited resources,” he says. To get funding he knew he would have to start something extraordinary. Inspiration came when he noticed the stirring of Iceland’s genomics program. “And I realized that we could do it even better by using newer technologies and a bigger database,” Metspalu says.

Roused to action, he and cancer surgeon Jaanus Pikani began talking up a genome program that would be the world’s largest: a clinical database with DNA from one million individuals, two-thirds of Estonia. After almost a year of roundtable discussions, the Estonian Parliament established the Estonian Genebank Foundation in late 2000.

As a member of the foundation’s management board, Metspalu is active in fundraising — the pilot study with DNA samples of 10,000 people needs $5 million from investors. And as cofounder of Asper Biotech, a Tartu-based company specializing in DNA chip analysis, Metspalu is also an employer. Thanks to the genome project and Estonia’s nascent biotech industry, job prospects for young Estonian scientists are far brighter than they used to be. Everything is going as planned, Metspalu says. “It looks like we can pull it off.”

— Tom Hollon