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NIH Symposium This Week Will Focus on Planning Environmental Genome Project

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BETHESDA, Md.--Leading genetic scientists will meet here this week to discuss the recently announced Environmental Genome Project, sponsored by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), one of the National Institutes of Health. The project aims to use genomics technologies, including bioinformatics, to identify genes that control human susceptibility to natural and man-made chemicals, metals, dietary constituents, and other environmental and workplace factors that can cause disease.

Scheduled for October 17-18 on the National Institutes of Health campus, the symposium aims to give the agency a better idea of how to proceed with the new genome project, according to Frederick Tyson, assistant to NIEHS's scientific director. The meeting will examine gene-environment interaction in human disease, allele identification, DNA sequencing technology, analysis of polymorphisms, and policy questions, he said. It will be chaired by Carl Barrett and Jack Taylor of NIEHS and Leland Hartwell of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

The five-year, $50 million Environmental Genome Project will research genetic susceptibility to environmentally associated diseases, including such questions as why some people are more likely than others to succumb to exposure-induced disease, Tyson told BioInform. The project seeks to identify, for study purposes, 200 genes whose variations are most likely to have a major role in whether a person gets a disease or disorder following an exposure. Plans are to identify alleles of the environmental disease susceptibility genes found in a 1,000-person sample of the US population, he said.

"We're going to resequence genes that are already available on genomic databases," Tyson continued, explaining the research methodology. NIEHS hopes to place the results in a new, public database that catalogues polymorphisms found in the US gene pool. In addition, cell lines with various polymorphic traits will be produced and made available to researchers. Ultimately, the project will be used to develop public health programs aimed at screening out and protecting people in high-risk groups, according to Tyson.

NIEHS will provide funding for various research organizations that participate in the project, including the requisite bioinformatics effort, but those organizations and amounts have not yet been identified, he noted. "We haven't started funding anything yet. Nothing is etched in stone except that we're doing it," said Tyson.

Last month, the agency began asking genetic researchers to nominate suspected environmental response genes in 10 categories: detoxification and xenobiotic metabolism genes; hormone metabolic genes; receptor genes; DNA repair genes; cell cycle genes; cell death control genes; mediators of immune and inflammatory response; mediators of nutritional factors; genes associated with the oxidative process; and signal transduction genes. Nominated genes will be peer-reviewed to determine which should be included in the study. More information about the project and the symposium, including a gene nomination form, is available at the agency's web page at http://www.niehs.nih.gov.

--Joseph D'Allegro

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