Wellcome Trust Backs Genome Computation

From the 28 July issue of Science magazine, p. 525.

What began as a one-man crusade now has the weight of the world's largest medical research charity behind it. Last week the U.K.-based Wellcome Trust announced that it would spend $13 million over 5 years to fund hardware and software designed to analyze newly sequenced human DNA. Its support of a project called Ensembl reflects a growing appreciation of the importance of computers to interpret the human genome.

Ensembl was started in early 1999 by Tim Hubbard, a bioinformaticist at the Sanger Centre near Cambridge, U.K. He began developing computer programs to sort through the vast amounts of data generated by sequencing efforts, which simply determine the order of bases--A, G, T, and C--along each chromosome. However, the sequence has little value or meaning until scientists locate the genes these bases encode and figure out their functions. By midyear, Hubbard had teamed up with Sanger's Michele Clamp, Ewan Birney of the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI), also in Cambridge, and a few other colleagues to set up automated preliminary analysis of the rapidly emerging rough draft of the human genome.

"The Ensembl budget was cobbled together," Birney recalls. "We were working off bits and bobs of other budgets." By making their rudimentary analysis available to everyone, they also hoped to prevent the genome from being patented by private concerns.

The Wellcome money will put the project on much firmer footing. It allows the 10-person Ensembl staff to triple over 5 years and greatly increases its computing capacity, adding "the equivalent of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of personal computers," notes EBI's Graham Cameron. This investment "will speed up the annotation of the human genome," predicts David Haussler, a bioinformaticist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "It puts them in a better position to tackle the large bioinformatics problems that are looming."

The new funds will be split between the Sanger Center and EBI, which is an outpost of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany. The money arrives at a critical time for EBI, one of the world's three archives of genomics data, whose budget has been hit by changes in the European Union's policies for supporting scientific infrastructure ( Science, 25 February, p. 1401). It's also "a vote of confidence [in the field] and a commitment by the Wellcome Trust," notes David Lipman, director of the National Center for Biotechnology Information in Bethesda, Maryland.

The award reflects a growing interest in bioinformatics by funding agencies. Haussler, for example, is one of 12 computational biologists who have just been appointed as investigators for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute plans to create a network of centers of excellence, several of which will focus on computational biology. The award to Ensembl also kicks off the Wellcome Trust's $150 million initiative in functional genomics, which follows the recent completion of the rough draft of the human genome. "We didn't feel we could wait," says Celia Caulcott, a Wellcome Trust program manager.

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