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DuPont s Microbial Genomics Group Recruits a Bioinformatics SWAT Team

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WILMINGTON, Del.--By the time Jean-Francois Tomb finishes staffing DuPont's new Microbial Genomics program he hopes to have assembled a virtual SWAT team of bioinformaticists at the chemical giant's experimental station here. "There will be no nut hard enough that we will not be able to crack it," he said.

Last month Tomb left The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) in Rockville, Md., to take a newly created position within DuPont's Microbial and Industrial Biotechnology Group. Tomb talked to BioInform last week about his new role as head of DuPont's Microbial Genomics program and about his new employer's expansion into industrial genomics.

According to Tomb, DuPont is embarking on a major new effort to expand into biotechnology, and is fostering rapid growth in microbial and plant genomics. "These [genomes] might be the new vehicles for synthesis and production of materials of interest to DuPont," Tomb said.

Though Tomb's work at TIGR focused on human health--he led sequencing projects of Helicobacter pylori, a pathogen that causes stomach ulcers, and Porphyromonas jingivalis, a pathogen implicated in periodontal disease--he said his decision to join the private sector and switch to industrial genomics was painless. "When I met the people here I was impressed by the fact that the scientists at DuPont are rooted in basic sciences, although the goal is applied. You have a breadth of expertise that you rarely see in academia. So it is an extremely rich environment for people who want to pursue industrial genomics," he said.

"Coming from academia (Tomb spent 14 years at Johns Hopkins before TIGR), I know there is a revolution in biotech and people want to use information from microbial genomes--organisms other than E.coli and other bacilli--for production of chemicals like polymers. That's the challenge right now," he said.

In an e-mail message Tomb circulated to the bioinformatics community announcing job openings on his team, he coaxed potential applicants with the promise of "a highly competitive salary," "remarkable scientific support services," and "a scientific community that fosters interaction between microbiologists, biochemists, chemists and engineers."

Tomb said he had openings for experienced database designers and managers with backgrounds in biology; computer scientists with experience in data acquisition, storage, and representation; and computational biologists with experience in developing specialty algorithms.

His message, sent out over the Internet at 5:59 am on a recent Friday, drew responses from several highly qualified applicants within hours. By noon the same day, Tomb was already checking references and scheduling interviews. "Within two weeks this could be over," he said of the latest hiring round.

Buying time

DuPont's Microbial and Indust rial Biotechnology Group, headed by Ethel Jackson under the directorship of Phil Meredith, where Tomb's genome program is housed, aims to develop new technology for the biological production of commodity materials and bioremediation. "Our group is involved directly in applied research programs using modern molecular tools and also using genomics to study the physiology of environmentally and industrially relevant organisms," he said.

Specifically what organisms he will be targeting, Tomb couldn't say. "In general, we're looking for bacteria that could be [useful to developing] chemicals of importance to DuPont" in any of its product categories, he said.

DuPont's microbial genomics program, Tomb explained, will cover both computational and experimental genomics, designed around three interrelated projects: the complete sequencing, assembly, and annotation of microbial genomes of industrial importance; the creation of functional databases; and the application of genome-wide experimental approaches.

"Basically, we'll be buying time by applying these approaches, reducing the research and development time from 15 years to two to three years," he said. "The hope is to identify potential production-platform organisms and to be able to genetically engineer them for the optimal production of target chemicals for commodity materials--the new minifactories of the industrial world."

Tomb said the entire experimental station here is exploring biological production. "Conventionally, DuPont has been very successful at producing polymers by organic chemistry. Now, in addition to the chemical approach, we will be using biological production for commodity materials," Tomb said.

Asked why he thinks DuPont selected him for the job, Tomb said, with a modest chuckle, "I have a vision. I presented a vision of what we hope to achieve by sequencing and analysis of microbial genomes."

--Adrienne Burke

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