BOSTON, Jan. 4 - Now that it has almost finished mapping the human genome with its 16 international lab partners, the Whitehead Institute's Center for Genome Research is asking: "What next?"
"One of our goals is to realize the benefits of this wealth of information to improve human health and apply it to medicine," said Seema Kumar, Whitehead's spokeswoman. "As a result, the center is looking at new ways to organize itself."
Scientists and administrators there have been informally discussing what the best organizational model may be for the genome center, looking for one that can help it take advantage of its expertise in a post-genomics landscape.
Asked whether the new model might include the genome center splitting off from the Whitehead to become its own institute, Kumar said: "We're considering several different models and no clear decisions are expected to be made for a year."
The center has grown from a small office in 1984 to a bustling set of labs with more than 275 employees. In total, the Whitehead Institute employs about 875 people.
Both the Institute and its genome center are closely affiliated with MIT, which draws upon the center's scientists to teach biology at the university. Since it was founded in 1982, the Institute has remained an independent, non-profit research entity with its own board of directors that governs its finances and scientific direction.
"That's what has allowed us this nimbleness," Kumar said, referring to what she calls the Institute's ability to re-evaluate its priorities each time it reaches a goal. "This [talk of organizational change] is normal strategic planning."
Kumar said the organizational re-valuation was neither motivated by funding considerations nor by a need for more space. Instead, she said, the question of what the next step may be has been on the minds of the center's scientists recently because of their desire to establish a new model to take advantage of the information gleaned from the Human Genome Project.
Kumar said the question began to pop up last February when the international consortium published a draft sequence and initial analysis of the human genome. At that time, Eric Lander, the genome center's director, indicated that mapping the human genome was just the first step.
"For many years to come, we will be exploring the intricate details of the terrain ahead," he has said. And now, the genome center is in the process of deciding what part of that terrain it wants to tackle next and how it wants to do it.