Highlighting the importance of computers in interpreting the human genome, the world's largest medical research charity is putting up $13 million to fund hardware and software designed to analyze newly sequenced DNA. On 20 July, the U.K.-based Wellcome Trust pledged to support for 5 years an automated genome analysis project called Ensembl.
Sequencing the human genome involves determining the order of the millions of bases--A, G, T, and C--along each chromosome. But that sequence has little value or meaning until scientists locate the genes these bases encode and figure out their functions.
Last year, Tim Hubbard of the Sanger Centre in Cambridge and Ewan Birney of the European Bioinformatics Institute, also in Cambridge, began writing computer programs that automatically analyzed genome sequences. The programs predict gene locations and make inferences about the functions of the proteins encoded by those genes. Until now, the operation they dubbed Ensembl "was a stealth project," says Hubbard, with no specific funds set aside for its development. But given that a rough draft of the human genome is virtually complete (ScienceNOW, 26 June), "the bioinformatics requirement is enormous," he points out. With the new funding, he plans to triple Ensembl's staff of 10 and buy more computing power.
"This award will speed up the annotation of the human genome," predicts David Haussler, a bioinformaticist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He's one of several researchers coordinating their genome-analysis efforts with the Ensembl group. The award was the first to be given under the Wellcome Trust's new $150 million initiative in functional genomics and was made well before any others, in part because of the rough draft. "We didn't feel we could wait," says Celia Caulcott, a Wellcome Trust program manager.
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