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TIGR and Venter s Nonprofits Plan New Genome-Sequencing Center

NEW YORK, Aug. 15 - The three research centers founded and funded by Craig Venter will collaborate to build a new high-throughput genome-sequencing center whose goal will be to sequence a human genome in a fraction of the time it currently takes, the three centers said today.


The Institute for Genomic Research, the Center for the Advancement of Genomics, and the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives will also partner to harness new genomic technology--like the gene-analysis tool being developed by US Genomics--in order to cut the cost of analyzing an entire human genome to as little as $2,000, Venter said.


To that end, the centers intend to "customize" an existing molecular-biology facility in Rockville, Md., to accommodate the array of automated DNA-sequencing tools, supercomputers, networking platforms, and data-storage capacity the new space will need, according to a spokeswoman for IBEA and TCAG.


Venter has narrowed his choice to a pair of 40,000-square-foot facilities in Rockville and hopes to pick one in time to have it operational before the end of the year, the spokeswoman, Heather Kowalski, told GenomeWeb. The new center will staff about 100 people, she added.


However, Venter still has not yet decided which gene-sequencing technologies will be used in the new space, but Kowalski said he has narrowed his choice to ABI and Amersham Biosciences. (In a side note, Venter's announcement coincides with the day his old pals at ABI were slated to launch their newest sequencer, the 3730. "Unfortunate timing," Venter asserted in the New York Times.)


The decision by Venter to focus so intently on gene sequencing appears to buck the current trend of pulling back resources on genomic sequencing. Indeed, money for sequencing projects is predicted to remain constant rather than increase over the next several years, according to Chad Nusbaum, co-director of genome sequencing and analysis at the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research.


"The budget coming out of funding agencies [for sequencing] is not going up, [that's the] message from NHGRI," Nusbaum told GenomeWeb in a recent interview.

Meantime, the new Venter center also plans to house an R&D lab that will "explore advanced technologies from a variety of vendors," including the GeneEngine platform made by U.S. Genomics, whose board Venter has recently joined. Venter also became a scientific advisor to the Woburn, Mass.-based firm, according to a statement released this morning by the company.


The GeneEngine platform uses direct, linear readings of long, unbroken segments of DNA, according to Eugene Chan, chairman and CEO of U.S. Genomics, and may play a significant role in allowing Venter's researchers to cheaply and quickly analyze individual genomes.


"Our goal is to build a new and unique sequencing facility that can deal with the large number of organisms to be sequenced, and can further analyze those genomes already completed," said Venter, who is president of TCAG, IBEA, and the Venter Science Foundation, which will pay for most of the research conducted at the new center.


Unlike the data compiled by Celera, which Venter founded and ran until he left in January, data harvested by his new nonprofit will be freely available to all researchers.


Claire Fraser, president and director of TIGR, said the new sequencing capacity will allow TIGR to expand and hasten its research on "a wide array of projects"--a welcome sign for genome scientists, especially at TIGR, which has been running out of sequencing capacity since the threat of bioterror has put pressure to perform more sequencing research.

"This new facility will allow TIGR to greatly expand its sequencing capacity and give our scientists the tools to tackle large genomes more rapidly and at a lower cost," said Fraser. "That gives a boost to a wide range of TIGR research projects that have the potential to help people across the globe."

To be sure, TIGR's sequencing lab, which has around 40 projects currently underway, will continue its operations until the new joint sequencing facility comes on line, Fraser said. At that point, the current TIGR sequencing facility "will undergo a metamorphosis to add a state-of-the-art capability to genome closure."


Venter's new facility also plans to continue pushing research into biological energy already underway at IBEA. In this case, researchers at TIGR and IBEA have been looking for new organisms and analyzing known organisms that metabolize carbon or create hydrogen in hopes of developing new energy sources, Venter said.


Ken Howard in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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