New Funding Programs Push German Genome Research

Germany is once again boosting its efforts in the field of genome research. Two new funding initiatives launched this month--a 1.6 billion DM health research program and a funding initiative supporting genome research on microorganisms --will help Germany to gain further ground in this attractive but highly competitive market.

Germany started its Human Genome Project (DHGP) in 1996, much later than many other nations. But Germans are making a valiant attempt to catch up, having already scheduled a genome research budget increment by 70% for next year. Now, German genome research can count on a further 350 million DM for the next 3 years. This surprising cash flow is part of the 1.8 billion DM research and education windfall that the German government received from the recent auction of Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS) frequencies to private companies.

Last week, the federal government agreed to spend part of the UMTS money to set up a National Genome Research Network to fight cardiovascular problems, cancer, infections, and allergies with the techniques of molecular medicine and functional genome analysis, said Germany's research minister Edelgard Bulmahn. "An important focus of the new health research program is to discover and overcome the actual origin of diseases."

The science ministry's second new funding program, called GenoMik ("Genomforschung an Mikroorganismen"), intends to speed up Germany's genome research on microorganisms. Because of its high relevance for agricultural, biotechnical, pharmaceutical, and environmental applications, the field had greatly benefited from public and private funding in the U.S. and the U.K. during the last years but fell behind in Germany. And although a keynote report on genome research in Germany published this summer demonstrated Germany's considerable potential for sequencing microorganisms, Germany has contributed only eight out of the about 130 microorganisms that have been, or are currently being, sequenced.

GenoMik will change this and bring the country into a leading position, soon, the funder hopes. With 40 million DM, three new competence networks will be set up over the coming 3 years that cover sequencing, technology development, bioinformatics, and functional analysis. Bringing together partners from higher education, science, and industry, competence networks focus resources with the aim of generating an increase of quality for basic and applied research, higher education, and training. A university at the very heart of each of the new networks will encourage interdisciplinary training programs and also generally improve the quality of higher education in this rapidly developing area of research.

Although promising, new funding programs alone cannot guarantee the successful development of Germany's genome research. Academic research will need industrial partners to transfer the research output into products and economic values that can act as fuel for further growth. Although German industry does invest in genome research, most of the money left the country. Between 1995 and 1999, German corporations invested more than US$2.5 billion in American human genome and microorganism research.

However, the rapid growth of Germany's human genome project over the last 2 years may have already induced a trend reversal. Just last month, Bayer AG and Lion Bioscience announced a cooperative agreement worth $100 million to be spent in Germany. Together with such incentives as the federal BioRegio competition that has led to eight spin offs from the DHGP, the new funding programs may also help stabilize this encouraging development.

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