A Bottom-Up View of Human Genetics

Article excerpt

Byline: William Underhill

The Sanger Institute was a modest and little known cluster of buildings in Cambridgeshire when genomics expert Tim Hubbard arrived in 1997. Burgeoning spending on genomic research has led to a rapid expansion -- the institute now employs 800 people, more than double its size five years ago. The latest addition: a 1,000-square-meter computer center ready to crunch the mass of genomic data scientists expect to generate in the next few years. With a budget of $8.5 million, Hubbard, the center's head of bio-infomatics, is leading an international team that will probe deeper than ever before into the mysteries of the human genome.

His team is making the first systematic effort to catalog all the working components of the genome and establish their roles. The ultimate goal of the project, called ENCODE, for Encyclopaedia of DNA Elements, is to find new clues to the genetic basis of a host of common diseases, such as diabetes, Alzheimer's and perhaps even cancer, which will in turn suggest new drugs and therapies. "We expect to discover many more genome features that will help us to understand human biology and the role of genome elements in health and disease," says Hubbard.

It's an ambitious undertaking. Hubbard's team will extend the work of a pilot project -- which last summer completed an investigation into 1 percent of the genome, or 30,000 DNA base pairs -- to the full 3 billion pairs of the genome. …