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Celebrating 25 years at UW-Madison’s Biotechnology Center

March 8, 2010 By David Tenenbaum

On Wednesday, March 10, the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus community and guests will join in celebrating 25 years of operation at the UW–Madison Biotechnology Center.

Formed when some people were frightened by the prospect of genetic engineering, the center has matured into an interdisciplinary hub of the Madison area’s growing biotech business.

Only three Madison-area companies were working in biotech back in 1985, says Dick Burgess, the center’s founding director. Now the area has more than 150 biotech firms, and the state is recognized as a premier site for biotechnology research and industry.

The center maintains close ties with industry and with scientists in many departments across campus, says current director Michael Sussman, a professor of biochemistry. One focus is providing analytical equipment. “We’ve developed a core facility for next-generation DNA sequencing,” Sussman says, which can gobble up DNA and spit out data on its structure at astonishing rates. “Other units on campus are starting to helping us procure these instruments and put them in the biotech center sequencing facility, where we can operate them for everyone on campus.”

The center can also analyze the proteins and small molecules whose structures and function that are encoded within the DNA and are critical links in the interaction between genes and environment that determine who we are.

Wisconsin has deep roots in biotechnologies such as farming and brewing, and Burgess was determined that the center address state problems from the first. One early project looked at “greener” ways to make paper pulp with fungus instead of synthetic chemicals. Nowadays, the center is helping analyze and alter the metabolism of microbes and crops to ease the conversion of their biomass into sugar and then biofuels.

A second ongoing focus has been education and outreach, says Burgess, now a professor emeritus of oncology. “We had to find ways of countering the negativism. We tried to provide a positive face to the science and the scientists who were doing biotech research at the university.”

Sussman says the biotech center has grown into an integral part of a university with unparalleled prowess in biology. “This campus is one of the greatest biological campuses on Earth. We have 750 tenured professors in biology, and probably a greater diversity, quality and quantity of biology research than at any place outside of the National Institutes of Health.”

As biotech advances, nagging uncertainty continues about the instructions passed down in genes. The first “reading” of the human genome, which occurred about a decade ago, produced more questions than answers, forcing a reassessment, for example, of large stretches of the genome that were once considered “junk” but actually control when genes operate.

The biotech center remains an asset for the broad range of biological scientists on campus. “I find it really exciting to help our faculty and staff do experiments; these analytical methods are opening a completely new way to figure out what biology is doing,” Sussman says. “We are getting fairly good at analyzing the role of DNA and RNA in disease, but why stop there? Let’s also look at the genes and the proteins, all of the small molecules involved in metabolism, all at once.”

The center’s effort to foster greater understanding of the beneficial role high-tech entrepreneurs has paid off. “In the middle 1980s, almost everyone being trained in Madison in biological science was going to the coasts; it was an incredible brain drain,” Burgess says. “Now there are thousands of jobs in the area, and we have attracted a lot of significant talent.”

The 25th anniversary celebration will be held from 2-4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 10, in Room 1111 of the Biotechnology Center, 425 Henry Mall.