A Virtual Lab for Human Genes

WASHINGTON--The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced today that it is creating a ``virtual institute'' for human gene sequencing centered at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California. Scientists in the new institute will be based at three locations hundreds of miles apart, but will be linked by a high-speed electronic network, shared databases, and a common agenda.

The virtual lab, according to Martha Krebs, DOE's director of energy research, will focus on creating ``the next generation of genome sequencing tools'' and will support the international effort to decipher the complete human genetic code. Specifically, the Joint Genome Institute, as it's called, aims to sequence about 40% of the human genome--roughly 1.2 billion base pairs of DNA--by the year 2005. The new structure will cut redundant work by fostering ``more efficient cooperation among DOE laboratories,'' Krebs claims.

In the past, DOE's genome research has been split among three major centers, each with an independent agenda. In addition to Livermore, DOE scientific teams have been based at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California. Now, all three have been brought together under the direction of chief scientist Elbert Branscomb, a Livermore staffer who specializes in bioinformatics and comparative genome analysis. DOE plans to spend about $42 million next year on genome studies.

The other deep-pocketed player in this field is the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, which received a budget of more than $189 million for genome research in 1997. Francis Collins, the leader of NIH's genome center, issued a public welcome to DOE's new institute last week, urging it to adopt ``rigorous policies of rapid release of data and of quality control.''