Hopkins's Genetic Database to Close

Buffeted by the shifting winds of human genome research, government officials have decided to close an 8-year-old collection of human gene maps maintained by Johns Hopkins University. The database has outlived its usefulness, its sponsors say.

The $6.5-million-a-year Genome Data Base (GDB)--funded mainly (80%) by the Department of Energy (DOE)--was initially conceived as a resource for sequencing the human genome. GDB's Internet-accessible files contain descriptions of human genes, maps of genome regions, genetic "markers" to help guide researchers, and 1.5 million "clones"--short human DNA sequences inserted into bacterial plasmids--that provide what are called "physical maps" to the genome. It is used today primarily by gene hunters and other researchers who focus on specific areas of the genome.

But this disparate data collection, reflecting the styles and standards of the researchers who donated the holdings, is not being used by large-scale sequencing centers, says DOE spokesperson Dan Drell. DOE is now concentrating resources on these big sequencing centers, which construct their own maps. Drell says DOE decided last month to terminate the project but to keep a static version of the archive at DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Even before DOE's decision was made public, says GDB's chief, Stan Letovsky, company recruiters raided GDB's bioinformatics staff last fall, reducing it from 35 to 20. GDB still has loyal users, however, and many are upset. "Genome mapping and positional cloning activities use this tool heavily," says one GDB fan in France. "The funding agencies have made a serious strategic error." Letovsky says he would like to rescue GDB, but hasn't yet found anyone who can pick up the tab.