Genome study wins $9.1 million

By Dan Lambert

A U of C–led research team was awarded a $9.1-million grant on May 14 by the National Human Genome Research Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health. The team’s research of the fruit fly genome, which is smaller and less daunting than the human genome, is part of an international effort to study human genes.

The team, which includes scientists from such universities as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cambridge University, believes this simultaneous research will result in a higher quality analysis and allow for intellectual discussion between otherwise separated researchers. The team hopes to create a comprehensive map of the gene regulatory sequences in the fruit fly genome.

The grant marks an opportunity for University students to be at the center of a global research project. Graduate and undergraduate students will have the opportunity to use project resources to explore questions about how genes function in “normal development…in the case of disease, and during the evolution of species,” according to Professor Kevin White, director of the University’s Institute for Genomics and Systems Biology (IGSB) and a professor of human genetics and ecology and evolution.

Studying the fruit fly genome carries the potential to increase the speed at which scientists can identify diseased genes, White said. This shortened identification time will “lead to better predictions of how genetic differences between individuals will lead to differences in their susceptibility to diseases or their response to medications,” White said.

The fruit fly genome is an effective stand-in for the human genome because of its similar structure, but since it is 30 times smaller than the human genome, it can be studied with a higher resolution than is currently possible. This work is groundbreaking because only a small portion of regulatory sequences in any genome are mapped. The team hopes to map the fruit fly regulatory sequences to a 95-percent completion rate.

White described the University’s leading role in the project. “The majority of the automated mapping of regulatory elements using DNA chips will be performed by IGSB scientists at the University and Argonne National Lab,” he said.

This research is part of a larger project aimed at identifying all of the functional elements of the human genome. The Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) is a large-scale project founded in 2003 that seeks to bring both academic and government researchers together, creating a large base of scientists focused on exploring the functioning aspects of the human genome. The $9.1-million research grant was awarded by “model organism ENCODE” (modENCODE), a smaller division of the project devoted to identifying the functional elements of roundworm and fruit fly genomes.