In focus. A new genomics initiative aims to make sense of millions of DNA bases, like those shown here in an array.

Human Genomics Enters Round Two

BETHESDA, MD--As the final bases are mapped onto the human genome in the next month, a familiar refrain is growing louder: What comes next? On 7 March, representatives of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) sought to answer that question at an unusual workshop for potential grantees gathered here at the institute's home base.

In late February, NHGRI released a call for applications for its newest genome project, the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements, or ENCODE. Now that the sequence's 3 billion letters have been spelled out, the next goal is to locate and identify the meaningful portions. This includes determining which DNA codes for proteins and which doesn't as well as pinpointing elements that mediate gene expression.

NHGRI took the unusual step of inviting interested applicants to ask questions and offer feedback, helping shape the project. The institute has earmarked at least $36 million to ENCODE over the next 3 years. Most of the money will be parceled out among five to 15 groups, which all told will identify the functional elements in 1% of the genome. When finished, the teams will compare notes to determine which technologies proved most efficient and accurate. NHGRI envisions then scaling up the project to annotate the other 99% of the genome.

Coordinating ENCODE--and the resulting reams of information--will be daunting, NHGRI officials agree. Furthermore, quality standards are still up in the air, although the project requires that data be quickly released into the public domain.

Despite confusion over how grants will be awarded and how ENCODE will proceed, participants were thrilled by the project--the first opportunity, they say, to dig deep into the human genome. "In an understated way, I think this is an extraordinarily significant event," said John Stamatoyannopoulos of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, who's considering applying for an ENCODE grant. "They could spend $1 billion on this; [it's] much bigger than the genome."

Related site
More information on ENCODE