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New Bioinformatics Facility, Home for EBI, Officially Opened by HRH Princess Anne


HINXTON, UK--One of the world's premier sites in genome sequencing and bioinformatics was officially opened by HRH the Princess Royal, Princess Anne, on October 8. Set in 55 acres of parkland nine miles south of Cambridge, the £180 million Wellcome Trust Genome Campus includes the Sanger Centre; the Medical Research Council's UK Human Genome Mapping Project Resource Centre; the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI), an outstation of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg; and an international conference facility.

Among other major bioinformatics efforts, the Genome Campus houses the UK headquarters for the Human Genome Project, the international effort to sequence the entire human genome to an accuracy of 99.99 percent by the year 2005. The 300 scientists at the Sanger Centre, led by director John Sulston, are working to sequence one-sixth of the 3 billion nucleotides of the human genome. Sulston noted that "sequencing the human genome will not be the end, but will be a very solid foundation for the future of bioinformatics research. Immediate benefits like diagnosis of certain diseases are only the tip of the iceberg, the big future benefit being the complete understanding of the structure of life."

The Sanger Centre not only concentrates on the human genome, but also has been sequencing microorganisms such as yeast, human pathogens such as the tuberculosis bacterium and malaria, and the nematode worm C. elegans. All the sequencing projects at the Sanger Centre make it the world's top sequence depositor, supplying more than 10 percent of the total DNA sequencing done in the world.

The Human Genome Mapping Project Resource Centre, with a staff of 55, serves the scientific community with a wide range of specialist biological resources and services, as well as computational support. The Resource Centre's main research activity, led by Keith Gibson, is comparative mapping of the mouse and Japanese pufferfish genomes. Recently, the European Interspecific Backcross Project (mouse) was completed. The involvement in mouse genetics will continue, with a sequencing project in cooperation with the Mouse Genome Centre in Harwell, UK. "The importance of the mouse genome lies in its similarity to the human genome and in the existence of a large range of interesting disease models," Gibson noted.

Pufferfish Project

The comparative mapping of Fugu rubripes, the Japanese pufferfish, is done via the Landmark mapping project. The pufferfish genome has essentially the same number of genes as its human counterpart, but its size is only approximately 400 megabases, as a result of less repetitive DNA and smaller introns. Although the genes are much smaller than human genes, the homology between Fugu and mammal is high enough, and isolation of Fugu homologies to human genomic regions greatly enhances gene finding.

Data generated by both of these centers is channeled to EBI, which serves as a public-domain clearinghouse for the genetic information. Value is added via databases of protein sequences, secondary and 3D structures, and the functions of certain genes. Thousands of researchers all over the world access the data daily, or submit their own.

"These data are enormously valuable to scientists when exploited properly. In some sense the DNA is the boring part of biology--lets face it, nobody gets high on reading DNA sequences," remarked the institute's Graham Cameron. "But the thing is that they code for all the important stuff in biology: they code for proteins, proteins form certain structures, the structure of the protein and other aspects of them enable them to perform particular functions in an organism. And EBI collects databases on the whole range." EBI's database is synchronized daily with its counterparts, Genbank at the National Center for Biotechnology Information in Washington and the DNA Databank of Japan at the National Institute for Genetics in Mishima. On average, one new sequence is being deposited per minute; the database size doubles every 18 months. Currently Paolo Zanella heads EBI, but at the end of the year he will transfer those duties to two newly appointed heads, Cameron and Michael Ashburner.

Centers Support Publicizing Data

All three centers strongly support Wellcome Trust's policy on sequence release: to publicize data in an easy accessible way as soon as an individual sequence is available. The agreement on freely available genetics information was reached at a meeting in Bermuda where several big data contributors came together to discuss these aspects of the ongoing sequencing efforts. One of the newer international sequencing projects that is being set up, which will aim to completely sequence the 50 most important human pathogens over the next few years, will also adhere to the so-called "Bermuda principles." This project will involve a joint effort by the Wellcome Trust, the Sanger Centre, and some pharmaceutical companies.

The Princess Royal was given a tour of the three institutes and the campus, and officially opened the Genome Campus by revealing a commemorative stained glass window, 17 meters square, called "The Tree of Life." She was also presented with the first copy of the book A Quest for the Code of Life--Genome Analysis at the Wellcome Trust Genome Campus, compiled by Liz Fletcher and Roy Porter. In a speech to the princess, Sir Roger Gibbs, chairman of the Wellcome Trust, emphasized that the campus "contains what is undoubtedly one of the most exciting and demanding medical research projects anywhere--it has already attracted many eminent scientists from around the world--and it will attract more. Already 500 people are working on the campus--and of those, no less than 400 are scientists."

--Jean-Jack Riethoven

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