Revolutionary genomics project launched

November 03, 1999

Recognizing the profound significance of recent advancements in gene studies, the University of California, Davis, has launched a new genomics initiative that will unite scientists from across the campus in better understanding the actions of genes in growth, health, disease and behavior.

The initiative includes some $20 million for faculty recruitment and lab start-up costs. In addition, the campus is in the process of developing a capital funding plan for construction of a major new Genome and Biomedical Sciences Building that would help launch the initiative.

"In recent years, new research tools and techniques that allow us to study an organism's entire genome -- the full DNA sequence of its genetic material -- have dramatically changed the study of biological systems," said Mark McNamee, dean of the Division of Biological Sciences. "These genomics studies will greatly advance our understanding of living systems. They have enormous implications for progress in human and veterinary health care, agriculture and environmental sciences."

The intellectual centerpiece of the initiative will be the dozens of faculty members engaged in many aspects of genomics research. About 25 of these faculty members will be recruited to fill both new positions created by growth and vacant positions created by resignations or retirements. The new recruits are expected to bring special strengths that are central to genomics studies -- an understanding of robotics and other high-volume technologies needed to study many genes and many proteins simultaneously. Other faculty already on campus have reoriented their research programs to embrace genomics approaches, McNamee said.

Some of the genomics faculty members will belong to the UC Davis Genome Center, the first new product of the initiative. Designed to establish the campus as an international leader in functional and comparative genomics, the center will include scientists specializing in gene studies from a multitude of disciplines, including human and animal medicine, engineering, agriculture, and the biological and physical sciences. The Genome Center will also include a revitalized pharmacology and toxicology department in the School of Medicine and a group of bioinformatics faculty members who will provide the computational biology and informatics research needed to analyze the enormous amounts of data generated by the genomics research.

Today and tomorrow, recruitment ads for the first new Genome Center faculty members will appear in the journals Nature and Science. The new positions include the center director, a chair of medical pharmacology and toxicology, an associate director of bioinformatics and two positions in plant genomics.

Genome Center researchers are expected to work closely with campus colleagues in many departments and sections, as well as colleagues at the UC Davis Medical Center, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the centers for Neuroscience, Cancer and Comparative Medicine, and the USDA Western Human Nutrition Research Center.

The Genome Center will also complement the growing campus investments in mouse biology research, which includes a new collaboration with the Jackson Laboratories.

According to Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Robert Grey, "The changes that genomics will bring to the biological sciences are as significant as the changes that quantum physics brought to the physical sciences in the early 20th century. UC Davis has undertaken this very ambitious initiative in order to ensure its international position as a leader in the biological sciences."

The impact of this new field on the practice of medicine will be especially significant, said Joseph Silva, dean of the School of Medicine. "We are anticipating a new age in medicine in which genetic information will allow individualized therapeutic approaches and facile new strategies for drug discovery," he said.

The structural centerpiece of the initiative would be a new UC Davis Genome and Biomedical Sciences Building that is planned to house the Genome Center, the College of Engineering's Division of Biomedical Engineering and research programs in the School of Medicine. The building is expected to be five to seven stories tall, contain about 200,000 gross square feet and would be located next to Tupper Hall in the Health Sciences Complex near the recently authorized USDA Western Human Nutrition Center, on the southwest corner of the main campus.

Some of the construction funds are expected to come from state loans to be paid through future research funding overhead that would otherwise go to the state. At UC Davis, the Center for Comparative Medicine was the first facility to be constructed using such funds; the new Genome and Biomedical Sciences Building would be the second.

While many of the planning elements for the new building are in place, it must be approved formally by the UC Office of the President, the UC regents and eventually the Legislature and governor. Those approvals are hoped for by January 2000, with the building to be completed in 2002 or 2003.

The genomics initiative is one of five campus growth initiatives that have been earmarked for rapid implementation. The push for a campus emphasis on genomics initially came from faculty members in the plant sciences and was taken up by many campus constituencies that worked together in planning for putting the massive initiative into action.

Those first planning efforts were led by Richard Michelmore, professor of vegetable crops; Ken Burtis, professor of genetics; and Dan Gusfield, professor of computer science. Recent planning efforts were led by Alan Bennett, professor of vegetable crops, who headed a 13-member faculty steering committee.

Administrative leadership was provided by the Administrative Coordinating Council for Biological Sciences, composed of deans and vice chancellors with responsibilities in the biological sciences. Larry Hjelmeland, a professor of ophthalmology and molecular and cellular biology with a special assignment as faculty assistant to provost Grey, coordinated the final planning phases of the initiative.

University of California - Davis

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