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Next Stop, Function: NHGRI Embarks on ENCODE Project to Flesh out the Genome

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The National Human Genome Research Institute is laying the groundwork for a new, large-scale post-sequencing research consortium. The project, called ENCODE (ENCyclopedia Of DNA Elements), is still in the planning stages, but the first phase, a pilot project to assess currently available functional genomics technologies, will kick off in March, according to Peter Good, NIH program director.

The NHGRI will hold a meeting on March 7 to officially launch the pilot project and to educate potential participants about the program’s goals, Good said. The goal of the pilot project, he explained, will be “to try and determine what technologies are available for the functional annotation of a genome, and to do the annotations in a high-throughput way. Ideally, we’d like to be able to develop new computational tools that will improve the predictions.”

An organizing committee has already decided upon several target regions of the human genome — well-characterized regions as well as randomly selected areas — upon which the consortium participants can test their tools. One of the criteria for participation is that “you have to work on all the target regions, you can’t come in and just work on your favorites,” said Good.

The NHGRI is hoping to draw participants from academia as well as industry. Good noted that the project presents an opportunity for commercial tool shops to showcase the value of their technologies. Peer-reviewed research grants will be awarded, but Good did not disclose the program’s budget.

Ultimately, the plan is to functionally annotate the entire human genome. A consortium database will be created to hold information on all human protein-coding and non-protein-coding genes, promoters and regulatory sequences, and determinants of chromosome structure and function. The data release policy will be “consistent with NHGRI policies — as soon as it’s deemed reliable,” said Good.

Although the NHGRI is still sorting out the details of its next five-year plan, Good noted that the ENCODE project has already been deemed consistent with the community’s expectations of the agency’s ongoing role. One of the “resounding themes” at the NHGRI Airlie II planning meeting in November, Good said, was that “we should stick with what we’re good at.” Large-scale functional annotation of the human genome was basically a no-brainer.

Further information on the project is available at: www.genome.gov/Pages/Research/ENCODE/.

— BT

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