Probing the Proteome

If you want to know how a gene is built, study genomics. But if you want to know what a gene does, then it's time to start talking about a rapidly expanding new field: proteomics. In Germany alone, proteomics is expected to consume the lion's share of the 350 million DM (US$160 million) recently allocated to fund the National Genome Research Network Nationales Genomforschungsnetz) for the next 3 years. The sudden boom has left industry and academia scrambling to find qualified employees from the small pool of talented young proteomics researchers.

While genome sequencing helps to gather information on a genome's structure, it sheds no light on the molecular processes encoded by the genome. But to turn a gene sequence into a profitable medical treatment, for example, scientists must study the 30,000 to 100,000 proteins that regulate the actions of a typical cell. That is where proteome analysis starts. "To understand biological processes on the scale of a cell, proteomics really helps a lot because it enables a systematic analysis of proteins," says Walter Rosenthal of the Research Center for Molecular Pharmacology ( Forschungsinstitut für Molekulare Pharmakologie) in Berlin.

Germany is investing heavily in proteomics, hoping for a large payoff when treatments come to market. Besides the National Genome Research Network, the Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) also funds several projects to develop efficient new procedures for functional proteomics. Renowned research institutions such as the Max-Plank-Institute for Biochemistry, the Fraunhofer-Institute, and the Max-Delbrück-Center, as well as many other private institutions and universities, are also jointly working on basic research and developing medical applications. For example, the young researchers group (Nachwuchsforschergruppe) "automated protein screening systems" of the Fraunhofer-Institute in Stuttgart is searching for the proteins that control pathogenic mechanisms of microorganisms. Another field drawing interest and research money is the process of analyzing protein structures through nuclear magnetic resonance techniques.

The influx of money is creating many jobs for young researchers. The Society of German Chemists ( Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker) recently pointed out that the developments in proteomics on one hand and the lack of chemists on the other hand add up to an excellent job market at both research institutions and in private industry. The close conceptual relationship between research and the pharmaceutical industry has lead to physical cooperations between research institutions and industrial laboratories. With venture capital pouring into these start-ups, Germany's biotech industry is booming. "Especially the start-ups are searching for staff at the moment. That means everyone who has two arms, two legs, and has qualifications in the field of proteomics has pretty good chances of finding a job," says Kai Sohn, who is with the young researchers group in Stuttgart. Brigitte Wittmann-Liebold, one of the first scientists in Europe conducting research in proteomics, agrees. In 1992, Wittmann-Liebold was among the first researchers to found a spin-off business from her research work. "At that time, there weren't any jobs for scientists in that field nor research funds available, but now, the situation has changed completely," she tells Next Wave.

For some scientists, Germany is so attractive that they are willing to return home, reversing the infamous "brain drain" trend. "Since research conditions for younger scientists have improved significantly, I decided to return to Germany and work here," says Christian Freund, a chemist who used to be at Harvard University. And the growth of proteomics is just beginning; there should be ample opportunity for young researchers in the years to come.

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