P&S Journal: Winter 1996, Vol.16, No.1
P&S Expands Genome Program
The genome program, initiated in 1988 as part of the NIH Human Genome Project, has graduated to the next phase. On July 1, 1995, the Columbia Genome Center (CGC) was established officially as a Universitywide enterprise, broadening its goal of mapping the genome to include sequencing, gene discovery, and technology development on the genomes of human and selected model organisms. Dr. Isidore S. Edelman, director of the Human Genome Project at P&S, will serve as director of CGC.
The initial goal of NIH's genome initiative was to develop physical and genetic linkage maps of the human genome. With the success of the mapping phase and the availability of high-throughput DNA sequencing capability, the NIH is now placing emphasis on large-scale integrated mapping and sequencing.
"We essentially had two choices," says Dr. Edelman, "either get out of the project altogether or become bigger." Because of its success in mapping human chromosome 13 and in identifying genes such as the Wilson's disease gene, Columbia decided to make the investment in the sequencing and other equipment necessary to take this next step. This makes good sense, Dr. Edelman says, because "genetic mapping, sequencing, and informatics are among the most powerful tools for studying problems in biology, evolution, and environmental sciences. These technologies will provide the groundwork for analysis of the role of genetics in virtually all human disease."
Thus, the CGC has expanded the genome program from three technological areas to five; molecular genetics and DNA sequencing sections have been added to the existing sections of physical mapping, recombinant DNA, and informatics. Heading these sections are Dr. S.G. Fischer, senior research scientist, physical mapping; Dr. Bento Soares, assistant professor of neurogenetics, recombinant DNA; Dr. Conrad T. Gilliam, professor of genetics and development, molecular genetics; and Dr. James J. Russo, research scientist in genetics and development, DNA sequencing. Head of the informatics section has not yet been named.
In 1988, the first phase of the genome program was underwritten by funds from the dean's office, by contributions from several clinical and basic science departments at P&S, and by private funds, including The Sulzberger Foundation. During this phase specialists were recruited and feasibility studies were completed. In 1991, the second phase was funded by a two-year NIH genome grant. This entailed refining strategies for constructing physical maps at high resolution. In 1993, the third phase, still under way, was funded by a three-year NIH genome grant. Researchers are constructing a high resolution physical map of human chromosome 13. Additional funding for the expansion planned for CGC will come from Columbia University and a variety of other sources.
Currently, the CGC is mapping and sequencing the BRCA2 region on chromosome 13 (in collaboration with groups at Southwestern Medical School in Dallas and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories), the second of three genes that predict a susceptibility to breast cancer in both women and men. The center is also engaged in preliminary work on the Kaposi's sarcoma-associated virus discovered by Dr. Patrick Moore, assistant professor of public health, and Dr. Yuan Chang, assistant professor of pathology. Other projects are in planning stages.
Mapping and sequencing the human genome ultimately will help researchers better understand single gene diseases, multiple gene diseases, and genetic susceptibilities to diseases.
As a Universitywide center, the CGC intends to develop programs in basic biology, evolution, and environmental biology. Dr. Don Jay Melnick in the biological sciences department has a well-established program in evolutionary biology, and the CGC is exploring the possibility of providing collaborative technologies.
Until now, P&S has participated in gene mapping but has not contributed to high-throughput sequencing, which is critical for long-term goals of the genome initiative. With the new capabilities of the expanded CGC, P&S is positioned to become a substantial player in the entire area of genomics. "The University is committed to developing major programs in genetics," says Dr. Edelman, "and genomics will provide crucial technological and conceptual bases for biomedical research in the future."