Rita Colwell, former president of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, became director of the National Science Foundation in 1998. The foundation’s funding, distributed to nearly 200,000 people each year, has grown to more than $4.8 billion, $75 million of which is directed specifically to plant genome research. One of Colwell’s main efforts is a functional genomics program known as the 2010 Project, which aims to determine the functions of the 25,000 Arabidopsis genes by 2010. GT’s Meredith Salisbury recently caught up with Colwell for a chat on NSF’s initiatives in plant and microbial genomics and the “tree of life” project.
Despite the NSF’s small budget, at least relative to agencies such as NIH, people in the genomics industry say that NSF money is crucial to the field. Why? What kinds of projects does NSF fund?
COLWELL: The NSF really is the pivot for all the fundamental science because we do the basic research — the research that underpins [future] developments. In genomics it’s particularly important, not only for the nucleic acid chemistries research but more recently the Arabidopsis genome. That was a sequencing of the entire genome of the plant, which now allows us to move into our Project 2010 to look at each one of the genes … and [their] response to the environment. When you address a very large genome, like the human genome, having the model of Arabidopsis gives us a pattern against which we can learn.
When so much money’s coming from the private sector, what’s the role of government funding for genomics?
COLWELL: It’s absolutely, fundamentally important. We’re interested in the kinds of things that don’t have any immediate [commercial] applications. [Still,] hydrothermal vent research that we funded was pure research, but it turns out that there are some organisms that can function at very high temperatures, and their enzymes have commercial value in PCR.
The NSF has heavily funded plant genomics. What makes that particularly important? Are there other specific genomics programs?
COLWELL: That goes back to the early 1980s when we were the lead agency in doing Arabidopsis. We’ve always had a very strong plant science program.
We have a project that I’m pretty excited about: the microbial genomes. We expect in the 2003 budget to have about $15 million in microbe sequencing. For us diversity is critical, particularly since we have a program longstanding on life in extreme environments, or extremophiles, as well as microbes that contribute to soil and the ecology of infectious diseases.
We’re putting those together into what we call the tree of life project. It capitalizes on all the computational and genomics technologies [to] construct a genealogy of all the 1.7 million species of organisms living on Earth — we hope to do that in 10 years. That will give us kind of a beacon or a gyroscope for the basic research that we fund. It sounds very ambitious, but I think it’s doable.
What should the direction of genomics be? What is its ultimate goal?
COLWELL: The ultimate goal of genomics is to know and understand the universe in which we live, whether we’re microbiologists or physicists.
We’re moving to 21st century biology. It’s multidimensional, it’s absolutely multidisciplinary. It’s focused on the new bioscientist who is very comfortable with computers, chemistry, physics, and engineering — and on being part of a team that draws on all the disciplines. It’s a wonderful time to be in science.
There are directions where we need to know more, [such as] the tree of life project or the work that we’re launching in neural biology. With the advances in computer science and information technology it made possible bioinformatics; the next step would be being able to understand DNA as a computer, to link it with engineering. We always build on what we’ve done in the past.