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Million-dollar Keck Foundation grant funds UW-Madison genome research

August 8, 2012 By Chris DuPre

An interdisciplinary team of scientists and engineers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison has received a $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation to fund research into creating synthetic genome “foundries.”

The four faculty investigators leading the research will be Aseem Ansari of biochemistry and the Genome Center of Wisconsin, Jennifer Reed of chemical and biological engineering, Parmesh Ramanathan of electrical and computer engineering and David Schwartz of chemistry and the Nanoscale Science & Engineering Center.

The team hopes to “leapfrog” the current approach to synthesizing genomes, which has involved copying an existing small genome via time-intensive and cost-prohibitive methods. The proposed genome foundries would consist of a suite of computational tools, novel instrumentation, hardware fabrication languages and precision-tailored small molecules.

“This grant makes possible a highly synergistic partnership among these four researchers and their teams,” Ansari says. “If this works, it will completely change the paradigm. All of a sudden, the main intellectual, technological and financial roadblocks are removed.

“Seed funds from the W.M. Keck Foundation allow us to commit graduate students and postdocs to this high-risk, high-reward project and put our ideas to the test. I don’t think there are many other sources that would commit to early-stage technology on this scale,” he says. “The Keck Foundation is taking a leap of faith, with the understanding that we have credible track records in each one of those areas. Moreover, we leveraged the wealth of expertise in allied areas across UW.”

Should the UW–Madison team members be successful, they would revolutionize genome production; the first copying of a small microbial genome cost nearly $40 million and took 20 scientists more than 15 years to accomplish.

Such new technology would enable academic and industrial communities to invent genome-aided designs to explore multitudes of fundamental or applied problems across disciplines.

“The complexity of genomic structure and our limited understanding of biological processes requires the development of new methods in order to successfully model, and potentially re-design, a biological system,” says Donna M. Paulnock, associate dean of the UW–Madison Graduate School. “This novel project is aimed at developing a new, multi-factorial approach to genome synthesis that would revolutionize this field. The willingness of the Keck Foundation to provide funding for this effort at such an early stage of development will be critical for the launch of this exciting interdisciplinary project and will provide a solid foundation for its success.”

Ansari says success would open doors for a wealth of investigations and applications.

“If the four of us can achieve this, for a simple metabolic network, then we will have made it very easy conceptually to pick up a set of genes and circuits at a high level,” he says. “A high school kid could say, ‘For a living cell, I need genes A,B, C, D.’ Then that student could build a synthetic genome, put it in a mini-cell lacking its own genome and see if it will survive. The person would not need to have the same degree of expertise in every one of these fields. If nothing else, it would be an incredibly intuitive way to learn science and how different disciplines seamlessly integrate when thinking at a systems level. “

Based in Los Angeles, the W.M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 by the late W.M. Keck, founder of the Superior Oil Company. The foundation’s grant making is focused primarily on pioneering efforts in the areas of medical research, science and engineering. More information aboout the foundation is available here.

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