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Duke Lands $14M DARPA Grant for Biochronicity Project

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Duke University scientists will lead a research project funded with $14 million by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to uncover the genetic and molecular controls for the cellular biological clocks that govern biological timing, Duke said today.

DARPA funded the project under its Biochronicity program, which aims to support research to identify common spatio-temporal instructions, or "clock signatures," in the genome, epigenome, proteome, and transcriptome in prokaryotes and eukaryotes that can be used in a range of applications in humans. The four-year Duke research project will have a heavy dose of mathematics, systems biology, and bioinformatics. DARPA has set several specific milestones that the researchers are to meet at different phases of the research, and the projects will be reviewed annually.

The researchers will seek to identify genes that turn different types of biological clocks on and off. They will further investigate the role each gene plays in these clocks and whether they can be used to indicate where the clock is in its cycle.

Such knowledge could be used to better understand and manage disease, trauma, human combat performance, and to develop countermeasures against infectious diseases. Control of metabolic clocks could be used to expand the "golden window" of opportunity for treating trauma cases coming in from battlefields, or to slow down metabolism after an injury, and to help soldiers adjust to jetlag.

The research team, led by Duke Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science John Harer, includes partners with expertise in cell cycles, circadian clocks, yeast metabolism, and other areas at Princeton University; the California Institute of Technology; the University of Pennsylvania; Montana State University; and the London Institute for Mathematical Sciences.

Although multiple "clock genes" have already been discovered, DARPA said in its funding announcement, none have been identified as a single linchpin or master regulator of the greater system that controls temporal expression in cells. Understanding the exact timing of biomolecule expression, DARPA said, is crucial for developing predictive models for molecular-timed events, cell cycle progression, lifespan, aging, and cell death.

"Our current understanding of how timing components are encoded in nucleic acids and other biomolecules is rudimentary, heuristic, and lacking quantitative predictive power," DARPA said.

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