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DOE Awards $16 Million for Technology To Establish Gene Sequencing Factory

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WASHINGTON--The US Department of Energy last month awarded $16 million in grants to four universities and one commercial entity for research that it said will provide additional technology, expertise, and resources to the department's Joint Genome Institute--a virtual institute integrating human genome research based in the Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore, and Los Alamos national laboratories. The university grant recipients will contribute technology needed by the institute to establish a sequencing factory, scheduled to begin operation in August.

The factory, to be housed in an existing facility currently being equipped in Walnut Creek, Calif., will contain a cost-effective, highly automated DNA assembly line, the department said. The factory is intended to sequence 20 million bases of DNA in fiscal 1998, and 40 million in 1999. Eventually, DOE announced, the factory will be able to sequence 100--200 million bases per year.

The five grant recipients are: the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass. ($10.9 million); Stanford University ($1.3 million); the University of Florida ($1.7 million); the University of California at Berkeley ($1.5 million); and Immusol, a privately held biopharmaceutical company in San Diego, Calif. ($800,000).

Eric Lander, principal investigator for the Whitehead grant, will work with the Joint Genome Institute to develop an automated system that integrates DNA sample preparation, DNA sequencing with available instruments, and sequence data analysis, according to DOE. The system will be modular so that individual units representing different steps in the sequencing process can be readily updated.

At Stanford and Florida, grant winners will develop and deliver new instruments and technologies that will increase the efficiency and reduce the cost of DNA sequencing, DOE said.

Why automation technology

Principal investigator for the grant at the University of Florida, Associate Professor Trevor Hawkins, a former director of sequencing at the Whitehead Institute and current director at CuraGen, explained the basis for the grants. DOE put out requests for proposals to fill the Joint Genome Institute needs it can't fill on its own, he said. "They have strong bioinformatics at Livermore and Berkeley labs, but didn't have automation expertise," he said. "That's why these grants have been awarded for automation."

Ron Davis of Stanford's biochemistry department, principal investigator for the grant awarded there, told BioInform his group's work will include guiding installation of automated sequencing technology developed at Stanford at the Walnut Creek facility.

Jack Barber, vice-president of research and development at Immusol and the principal investigator for the two-year grant there, said Immusol is working to discover and validate gene-based drug targets by applying proprietary ribozyme gene-delivery technology to rapidly confirm gene function in specific diseases. The funds, he said, "enable Immusol to identify genes based on their function, to determine biological roles for many of the already sequenced human genes, and to provide this information to benefit the Joint Genome Institute directly and the Human Genome Project indirectly."

--Adrienne Burke

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