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SEQUENCING New Generation of Organisms Vie for DNA Dollars


This month, 10 people will meet to decide the fate of sequencing labs across the country. Whether it’s chicken for all or all for fungus, the white papers that reached NHGRI by last month’s deadline will be reviewed by this panel to determine the members of a new stable of model organisms.

“In the early days of the genome project, we had a very short list,” recalls NHGRI director Francis Collins, ticking off yeast, Drosophila, E. coli, and mouse as examples. “It is happily the case that we can broaden that list considerably. The appetite for DNA sequence has gotten voracious.”

To establish some order in the sequencing community, NHGRI set three deadlines — beginning in February, every four months, on the 10th of the month, scientists from the public or private sector could submit 10-page applications advocating their model organism of choice. Collins and his staff “really racked our brains” selecting the review panel, which is charged with sorting the org requests into “high priority, low priority, or not now,” Collins says. Hoping to avoid playing favorites with the model orgs, “we tried to pick people who were not themselves aligned with an organism that isn’t already sequenced.”

The group consists of Bill Gelbart, chair, of Harvard; Mark Boguski; Wash U’s Sean Eddy; Laura Landweber from Princeton; Jeff Murray of the University of Iowa Medical Center; Stanford’s Rick Myers and Arend Sidow; NHGRI’s Bob Nussbaum; Paul Sternberg from Caltech; and Alan Williamson.

The review board will judge based on several factors including relevance to human health, improved understanding of biological and evolutionary processes, and connections of human and other sequences. Collins adds that genome size will play an important role as well given limited sequencing capacity — especially since most sequencing centers are still working on mouse and rat. Collins, for one, was eager to see which organisms would be put forward. Rumblings in the field have indicated support for chimpanzee, chicken, and Xenopus. “But there may be other organisms with better arguments,” he says.

And all those closet fans of the duck-billed platypus, fear not. “Almost any organism that is being studied in a research lab,” Collins says, “could be a model for something.”

— Meredith Salisbury

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