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Harvard Provides More Than $35M For New Genomics Research Center

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--As part of a broad initiative to enrich scientific research and education in several critical interdisciplinary fields, Harvard University said it would provide startup funding of more than $35 million for a Center for Genomic and Proteomic Research. A team of faculty from several of the university's arts and sciences departments, including computer science, biology, cellular and molecular biology, and chemistry and chemical biology, recommended creating several new clusters, including the genomics center, that "would draw on expertise from a range of academic departments and allow for sharing of facilities and equipment that single researchers can neither afford nor sustain," the Harvard Gazette reported.

Research at the new Center for Genomics and Proteomics, which a spokesman told BioInform would be situated in existing lab and office space on the campus here, will involve faculty in biology, chemistry, and the division of engineering and applied sciences. According to the university, the center will "concentrate on exploiting new chip technology to understand the behavior of whole cells, which should lead to a better view of animal behavior, evolution, the multigenic basis of diseases, and other complex biological phenomena."

Douglas Melton, a professor in Harvard's cellular and molecular biology department who has been appointed codirector of the genomics center, told BioInform that it will have four areas, including a bioinformatics component; a biological academic component; an engineering component to handle robots, high-throughput assays, and screening; and an administrative component.

Melton said that although computers have not yet been purchased, a general networking plan is under development and equipment for cDNA library gridding and DNA chip formation, such as robotics, PCR machines, and DNA sequencing apparatus are now being specified. "We're also looking forward to a lot of interaction with H.T. Kung, the head of computer science at Harvard, who will help lead efforts in developing search engines that can be applied to biological problems," he added.

Stuart Schreiber, of the chemistry and chemical biology department, will codirect the center with Melton. Schreiber said the center would feature the kind of interdisciplinary research that draws top students and faculty. "Many students are attracted to interdisciplinary research because it is intellectually challenging and stimulating and is increasingly important in modern science," Schreiber noted, adding, "This center creates real links between Faculty of Arts and Sciences departments and provides a laboratory environment with input from numerous areas of science and engineering."

Melton said Harvard would not begin offering bioinform-atics degrees, but that "there will certainly be an interdisciplinary PhD program offered with the genomics center." He added, "We're looking forward to offering a training grant, but that person's degree would still be a PhD in biology or computer science or chemistry."

The interdisciplinary nature of the center, he said, will lead to an environment in which "one student can experimentally probe every member of a genome or proteome in a single experiment [to get] an integrated picture of the response of an entire organism." Melton added that the research will be focused neither on human health nor on agriculture, but on broad biological issues such as how animals develop, species evolve, and chemicals interact with cells. "It's not disease-focused like a medical school might be," he said.

Over the next five years the university is expected to contribute $150 million-$200 million to the genomics center and other initiatives, which could include centers for research into the design of sophisticated web search engines to assist scientific research, and for exploring connections between single nerve cells and behavior of complex organisms.

Each center will also be expected to raise sufficient funds from government agencies, corporations, and individuals to secure its future, the university said. Melton said he and Schreiber are "already in discussions with some corporations and are equally active on trying to get federal support" for the genomics center.

--Adrienne Burke

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