Columbia University has been designated a Center of Excellence in Genomic Science and will receive a three year, $11 million grant from the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) of the National Institutes of Health. The emphasis at Columbia will be on genomic approaches to neuronal diversity and plasticity.
"The Centers of Excellence in Genomic Science program supports the very best and most innovative ways to understand the secrets locked in our genes, and that should benefit biomedical research," says Francis S. Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute.
In order to understand why some people develop certain diseases and others do not scientists must compare the DNA sequences of thousands of people. Currently, the process for sequencing an individual's genome is time consuming and extremely expensive -- about $50 million. Scientists are working on developing new research tools and approaches with the ultimate goal of increasing accuracy and reducing the cost of sequencing an individual genome to $1,000.
"Columbia University is honored to receive the grant support to move to a new era in genome research and to develop innovative genomic approaches for research in neurobiology," said Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger. "This research paradigm combines the strengths of the schools of engineering and arts and sciences with the health sciences to pursue new discoveries and knowledge in the life sciences."
"The Columbia Center of Excellence in Genomic Science is one of the first projects to be funded by the NHGRI after the completion of the human genome project," says Gerald D. Fischbach, executive vice president for health and biomedical sciences and dean of the faculty of medicine at Columbia. "The Columbia team will bring all of the power of genomics and bioinformatics to bear on profound questions regarding brain function: What makes one nerve cell different from another? How do nerve cells change during learning and memory?"
Jingyue Ju, associate professor of chemical engineering and head of DNA Sequencing & Chemical Biology at the Columbia Genome Center, is the principal investigator of the new center. He will lead the project in collaboration with co-investigators Eric Kandel, University Professor at Columbia and winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, and Leonid Moroz, assistant professor of Neuroscience at the University of Florida.
The researchers will develop three new genomic technologies: massive parallel DNA sequencing that will allow a genome to be sequenced on a chip, nanoscopic DNA arrays for measuring how many genes are active at any given time in single cells, and real-time monitoring of multiple copies of genes and their movement using combinatorial fluorescence energy transfer tags and molecular beacons. The technologies will then be implemented to study genes and their functions in neurons related to learning and memory and to explore how genes regulate behavior. These studies will be carried out using the model organism Aplysia, a creature with very large but relatively few nerve cells and clearly delineated behavioral circuitry compared with vertebrates. The technologies developed and the biological discoveries made in the project will have broad impact and applications to study how genes regulate cellular and organism behavior on the scale from simpler nervous systems in invertebrates to the human brain.
"Massively parallel DNA sequencing promises to bring genetic analysis to the next level where we can envision, for example, the routine comparison on individual genome profiles, a key step for personalized medicine," says Ju.
Other key faculty investigators at Columbia involved in the project are Nicholas Turro, professor of chemistry and chemical engineering; Conrad Gilliam, professor of genetics and development and director of the Columbia Genome Center; Jeffrey Koberstein, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering; Edward Leonard, professor of chemical and biomedical engineering; Andrey Rzhetsky, assistant professor of medical informatics; Weihong Tan, associate professor of chemistry, and Steven Benner, professor of chemistry are key investigators at the University of Florida.
While the Center of Excellence in Genomic Science at Columbia University is funded for an initial three-year period, the Center's grant may be renewed for an additional period.