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Under Construction: Genomics Facilities of the Future


One of the first things that Lee Bollinger — an attorney by training — did when he assumed the presidency of the University of Michigan was to start hanging out with scientists. He was determined to get the school in the top 10 in all areas. "In life sciences, we are not in the top 10," he told the Detroit Free Press, "and that to me is where we have had to put extraordinary effort and resources at this particular moment at the beginning of an intellectual revolution."

Michigan is one of many schools across the US looking to genomics to ensure its place as a world-class research organization in the coming decades. The following pages take a look at three centers whose ideas are being transformed into tangible steel, glass, and concrete.

Indeed, great importance is placed on the physical buildings. Because genomics involves bringing together biologists, physicists, chemists, engineers, and computer scientists who are used to working in isolation, a prerequisite for a genomics institute is often a physical space where they can mix professionally and socially."

"Through intense discussions with the scientists, I saw that as many new ideas take form outside the lab, sharing a cup of coffee, as in the lab," says Rafael Viñoly, the architect who designed Princeton University's building. To encourage interaction, Viñoly focused his design on a large atrium, or as he likes to call it, the building's living room.

The new genome homes also have open laboratories. "No walls. No barriers to interaction," says Jack Dixon, director of the Michigan institute.

And because change in the field is so dynamic, the space must also be flexible. In fact, although the directors of the institutes are floating around ideas about projects, "The question is what will the state-of-the-art be in 2004?" says Craig Benham, interim director for the UC Davis Genome Center. "And so we are not at the point of really determining in detail what's going to go in there," he says about the center's new building.

So the architects have had to be creative in their design. In the Princeton building, for example, Viñoly designed walls that can be transformed into furniture and vice versa. "We give the scientists the ability to reinvent the space," says Viñoly. "The structure should not direct what the scientist can do," he says. "The building should be a scientific tool."

The challenge for the institute is to stay at the cutting edge of technology and research. One thing that is certain is that these new centers don't see high-throughput sequencing playing a major role. "The high-end sequencing might be better done by JGI, for example," says Benham. "The question is how fast these technologies turn into commodities."

Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, Princeton University
Cost of Building: $40 million
Faculty: 12 permanent research groups, five five-year appointments
Size: 90,000 square feet; 30,000 square feet of lab space
Scheduled to be completed: November 2002

Six years ago Arnold Levine, known for discovering the P53 tumor suppressor, stepped down as chairman of Princeton University's department of molecular biology. University president Harold Shapiro, intent on keeping Levine on board, asked what it would take. The answer was a state-of-the-art genomics institute, and Levine became its first director. Shortly thereafter Levine left to become president of Rockefeller University.

The directorship then fell to Shirley Tilghman, a founding member of the National Advisory Council of the Human Genome Project Initiative for the National Institutes of Health. But she went off to replace Shapiro as Princeton's president.

"I'm the third person in line and I keep waiting for the phone to ring," says current interim director James Broach.

The institute is more than just a breeding ground for university presidents. "It's a common arena to foster interaction as a way to spark new ideas at the interface between biology, physics, chemistry, and computational sciences," says Broach. The labs of the different disciplines will be interspersed. "We don't segregate the people," he says. The building will be only two stories so that everybody can have easy access to each other. Its focal point is a two-story atrium with a large Frank Gehry sculpture that was planned to house a coffee shop to encourage mingling at its center. "But since it was lead-encased, it was hard to turn that into a coffee shop," says Broach. Instead it will be a meeting room with the coffee shop right outside. "It's all right to think there, but it's not all right to eat there," Broach says.

The atrium has a two-story glass wall that faces out into a field. There are 34 two-story aluminum louvers that move on motors to follow the trajectory of the sun to optimize the amount of light coming in without affecting the temperature. The crisscross-pattern design of the louvers is meant to throw a shadow of a double helix onto the floor, says Broach.

The $40 million building will house 12 permanent research groups and another five groups of young researchers just out of grad school or postdoctoral period to "have an opportunity to play in the sandbox unfettered for a five-year period," Broach says.

"This is not really a genomics institute in a classical description of having a whole array of sequencers lined up and doing an organism of the week," says Broach. "This really is a post-genomic institute.

UC Davis Genome Center
Cost of Building: $95 million
Faculty: 70 full-time equivalents
Size: 260,000 square feet gross; 135,000 square feet of actual assignable space
Scheduled to be completed: 2004

Population growth in California is a windfall for genomics at Davis. The University of California system is mandated by the state constitution to have the resources to take a certain fraction of graduates of California high schools. Most of the campuses have no room to grow, says UC Davis Genome Center interim director Craig Benham. But since Davis can, "there is going to be a disproportionate amount of new resources."

"They made the decision that they are not just going to award these proportionately to all the departments. They are going to really figure out what are the key emerging areas of science," says Benham. And thus the concept of the genome center was born.

Forty percent of the 70 or so new faculty members will be computational biologists and 60 percent will be experimentalists. "But we are not going to have the computer people in isolation," says Benham. Every lab and office will be wired with access to all databases and instrumentation.

The building will have six floors, with the medical school's department of molecular medicine occupying the top two, focusing on pharmacogenomics and bacterial and viral genomics. Genomics labs and computational biologists will be on the fourth floor and part of the third. The biomedical engineering departments, concentrating on new imaging and diagnostic technologies, as well as gene regulation and regulatory pathways, will take the second floor and the rest of the third. The first floor will house core facilities: protein purification, sample prep, and the like. And finally, 30,000 mice will call the basement home, along with an imaging center, based on micro-PET, -CT, and -MRI scans developed by the university's Simon Cherry to scan entire mice to study gene expression patterns.

"Davis has a lot of strengths in a lot of areas of genomics scattered around. Most of the people don't even know each other," says Benham. "We're going to coalesce it around a genome center that really focuses everybody's efforts in a central location, a clearinghouse, and a place for making contacts that could lead to collaboration."

Life Sciences Institute, University of Michigan
Cost of building: $90 million
Faculty: 20 to 25
Size: 240,00 square feet
Scheduled to be completed: September 2003

The force behind the University of Michigan's Life Sciences Institute was not a scientist, but a lawyer. Shortly after Lee Bollinger, a well-known First Amendment advocate, became president of University of Michigan in 1996, he also became an advocate of genomics. "He basically educated himself on the importance of science and what needed to be done," says Jack Dixon, director of the institute. (Bollinger has since moved on to assume the presidency of Columbia University.)

The state used some of its tobacco settlement money to build a beamline for x-ray crystallography at the Argonne National Laboratory synchrotron, so it's no surprise that the institute will have a strong focus on protein structure. "We have a room that's designed so 20 people can get in and take a tour of an x-ray structure," says Dixon. "So we have an effective way for people who know the physiology of the various types of proteins to interact with the people on the structural side." The building's design is all about interaction. "Basically you can't walk to the restroom without bumping into some people," Dixon says, "which is just what you want to initiate."

There are no walls between the labs. The institute is also putting up a structure next door called the commons, a place for the researchers to mingle. "The importance of two scientists sitting down together and solving an important problem over a cup of coffee is not fully appreciated," says Dixon. "We try to maximize those kinds of interactions because it pays big, big, big, big dividends."

The institute will also focus on proteomics, microarray technology, and computational biology. Since technology changes so quickly, Dixon has not yet committed to any particular instrumentation for the labs.

The Scan

For Better Odds

Bloomberg reports that a child has been born following polygenic risk score screening as an embryo.

Booster Decision Expected

The New York Times reports the US Food and Drug Administration is expected to authorize a booster dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech SARS-CoV-2 vaccine this week for individuals over 65 or at high risk.

Snipping HIV Out

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports Temple University researchers are to test a gene-editing approach for treating HIV.

PLOS Papers on Cancer Risk Scores, Typhoid Fever in Colombia, Streptococcus Protection

In PLOS this week: application of cancer polygenic risk scores across ancestries, genetic diversity of typhoid fever-causing Salmonella, and more.