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Berg: 'Don't Be Shy' About Defending Fundamental Model Organism Research

During his keynote address at the Genetics Society of America: Model Organisms to Human Biology meeting in Boston this week, National Institute of General Medical Sciences director Jeremy Berg spoke about advances in pharmacogenomics related to warfarin dosing, the recent NIH-wide changes to grant applications, and NIGMS genetics and genomics resources for those who study model organisms, "from A to Z — from Arabidopsis to zebrafish." Berg also spoke about how investigators who use model organisms in their work might be most likely to receive NIGMS funding for their work. Namely, Berg said that the most important factors in an NIGMS grant application are "significance, approach, and innovation," with the greatest emphasis on "How important is something if it works? How likely is it to work, and how likely is it that there'll be something else discovered along the way that could turn out to be important?" The NIGMS director told meeting attendees that many model organism researchers make the mistake is "trying to oversell potential translational applications, rather than saying 'gene regulation is really important for all biology and we really need to understand it as much as we possibly can.'" Many model organism research proposals which read "some genes are disregulated in cancer and therefore we're going to …" put the applicant at risk later on, he said, when it seems they're "being forced to deliver the goods about how you're going to get this into the clinic" — a conversation that "doesn't always go well." Berg told attendees that, on occasion, researchers will be required to defend their use of model organisms to study section members. "If you're going to use a model organism, say why," Berg said. "Don't be shy about defending … why it's better than the alternatives." Overall, he said, geneticists and genomicists studying nematodes, flies, mice, and other organisms, shouldn't "be shy about saying 'this research is significant because it's fundamental biology that's really important to human health and disease.'"