Rewriting Life

Sequence Sense

When the U.S. Department of Energy helped initiate the Human Genome Project in the late 1980s, it reasoned that knowing the entire sequence of human DNA would help illuminate radiation’s effects on the body-one of the agency’s mandates. Just over a decade later, the completion of the Human Genome Project is transforming medicine and biology. Now the agency is proposing another ambitious program, “Genomes to Life,” that it believes will aid other DOE missions: bioremediation, or neutralizing toxic waste with microbes or plants, and the production of clean energy using biological processes.

While biologists have sequenced the entire genome in humans and many other species, the DOE’s proposed program addresses some of the basic questions researchers believe must be answered before this information can be translated into a cleaner environment, healthier food or better medicines. The program has four main goals: identifying all the complexes of proteins, or “molecular machines,” that carry out cells’ functions; mapping the complicated networks of molecules that control the activity of genes; using gene sequencing to understand how communities of microbes work together; and building the computing infrastructure needed to explore such information-rich questions. Aristides Patrinos, an associate director at the DOE, says the program was crafted to draw on resources, particularly in computing, that are unique to the agency.

Of course, the Energy Department is not the only group seeking to take advantage of the vast amounts of new genomic information. But Caltech biologist Barbara Wold, who helped craft “Genomes to Life,” says the program would complement the efforts of such institutions as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Wold estimates the 10-year program would initially cost $50 million per year, ramping up to an annual $200 million. Says Wold, “The science is important and it’s a wonderful way to leverage special resources and current [agency] capabilities.” 

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