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UK's University of Birmingham Invests $3.1M in New Environmental Genomics Program

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The UK's University of Birmingham's said today that its School of Biosciences has launched a new initiative that will use high-throughput genomics and bioinformatics for research projects aimed at understanding genetic impacts of manmade chemicals that are released in the environment.

The university will provide an initial £2 million ($3.1 million) in funding to build up new genomics, metabolomics, computing, and lab facilities, and to hire new staff, including post-doctoral fellows, technicians, and doctoral students. Birmingham also expects other funding from government research grants and contributions from industry, foundations, and other donors, to support the environmental genomics program.

The initiative will be directed by John Colbourne, whom the university has recruited from Indiana University, Bloomington, where he was the genomics director of the Center for Genomics and Bioinformatics.

At IU, Colbourne led research into the genome of the freshwater crustacean Daphnia, in concert with the National Institutes of Health's Daphnia Genomics Consortium, to understand gene-environment interactions. Daphnia is an important subject for study because of the wide range of its adaptive responses to ecological changes and because of its genetic similarity to humans, relative to other invertebrate model species.

"Government agencies on both sides of the Atlantic agree that high-throughput genomics are expected to be the basis for environmental and human health protection and remediation by 2015, thus creating a global demand for these skills and technologies," Malcolm Press, pro-vice-chancellor and head of the University of Birmingham's College of Life and Environmental Sciences, said in a statement.

Colbourne said that the university's funding "will help catalyze international cooperation and provide a training ground for early career scientists in the field."

The university noted that there currently are more than 80,000 chemicals being used by consumers that are being released into the environment, and yet only around 7 percent of these have ever been tested for their potential effects on people and ecosystems. Because of their unknown potential impacts, there is increasing demand from regulators and industry for new tools to "quickly, cheaply, and effectively measure the possible toxicity of these chemicals," the university said.

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