Best known as a virtual institute, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) will soon make a vast expansion in bricks and mortar. The heavyweight biomedical charity announced last week it will spend $500 million over 10 years on a research center that will develop cutting-edge bioinformatics, imaging, and other tools. It will also serve as an incubator for visiting scientists--even those who aren't HHMI investigators.
The intramural research campus will be a major departure for the $12 billion HHMI. Since 1953, it has focused on funding an elite corps of researchers at academic campuses around the country and nourishing a stable of education and training programs.
The institute will break ground in 2003 on a 112-hectare site in Virginia, about a 45-minute drive from HHMI's present headquarters in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Plans call for a cluster of buildings with 46,000 square meters of space on the site. The campus, which will eventually house up to 300 scientists and has room to double in size, should open by 2005 with an annual operating budget of roughly $50 million.
The interdisciplinary center is intended to feed investigators' insatiable appetite for high-tech tools such as bioinformatics software and low-temperature electron microscopy. HHMI officials wanted to ensure that all HHMI investigators--not just those at wealthy campuses--could get access to these tools and the expertise needed to run them.
The few researchers who have heard about HHMI's closely guarded plans are enthusiastic: "It sounds like they're going to create a great playground" that will encourage the kind of mixing among disciplines needed to develop these technologies, says Harvard Medical School neuroscientist Carla Shatz, a former HHMI investigator who now serves on its medical advisory board.