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New Wisconsin Center of Excellence in Genomics Science established

September 28, 2009

The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) of the National Institutes of Health today (Sept. 28) announced an $8 million, three-year grant to establish a Wisconsin Center of Excellence in Genomics Science.

The new center is a collaborative effort among the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the Medical College of Wisconsin and Marquette University, and will be coordinated by the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW). It will be co-directed by Michael Olivier, professor of physiology at the MCW Biotechnology and Bioengineering Center (BBC) and the Human and Molecular Genetics Center (HMGC); and Lloyd M. Smith, W.L. Hubbell professor of chemistry and director of the Genome Center of Wisconsin (GCW) at UW–Madison.

The Centers of Excellence in Genomics Science program, initiated by NHGRI in 2001, assembles interdisciplinary research teams to develop novel technologies that significantly advance genomic research. The Wisconsin center and another newly funded center of excellence at the University of North Carolina join an elite group of existing centers of excellence at Arizona State University, the California Institute of Technology, the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, Stanford University, the University of Southern California and Yale University.

“Our aim is to foster the formation of innovative research teams that will develop genomic tools and technologies that help to advance human health,” says Alan E. Guttmacher, NHGRI’s acting director. “Each of these centers is in a position to tackle some of the most challenging questions facing biology today.”

The team at the Wisconsin center will focus on developing novel technologies for the comprehensive analysis of proteins that bind to DNA. According to Olivier, “We have a complete blueprint of the human DNA sequence thanks to the Human Genome Project, but we still do not really understand how the information encoded in the genome is read and used by the millions of cells in our body. Recent development of novel technologies allows us to study how individual proteins bind and interact with the DNA across the entire genome, and how this interaction varies in different cell types and under different conditions. Unfortunately, this approach only works with proteins that are already known. What is needed, and what we will develop in this center, is technology that is able to identify all of the proteins that are interacting with the genome, even if we do not know in advance what their function may be.”

According to Smith, “We want to know what sets of genes are turned on and off, and how this is coordinated and controlled. We have DNA sequences for so many organisms, but the big question now is figuring out what they are doing. We have the blueprints, but we don’t know how to read them, and gene regulation is front and center to that problem. Can we find the rules for when genes are turned on and off?”

Rather than using the traditional approach of identifying the DNA sequences where regulatory factors bind, the center will develop novel technologies that identify the proteins that bind to particular DNA regions. Through this approach, investigators may be able to identify entirely new regulatory proteins. The researchers’ ultimate goal is to develop a toolbox that can be used to better understand the relationship between changes in protein-DNA interactions and the underlying complex machinery controlling genes. Their approach combines DNA chip technology with very powerful and highly sensitive new instruments for identifying proteins.

“When we figure that out, we can use the information to understand what the rules are; without this information, we are flying blind,” says Smith.

The work of the new center builds on a long-standing collaboration between the groups at the Medical College and UW–Madison as part of their joint NIH-supported National Center of Proteomics Research. The new Wisconsin Center of Excellence builds on the existing strength in areas such as proteomics, genomics, chemistry and bioinformatics, especially at the Biotechnology and Bioengineering Center at MCW and the Genome Center of Wisconsin at UW–Madison.

In addition to Olivier and Smith, the Center of Excellence includes Lisa Cirillo, associate professor of cell biology, neurobiology and anatomy (MCW); Joshua Coon, associate professor of chemistry (UW-Madison); Steven Duncan, the Marcus Professor of Human and Molecular Genetics (MCW); Melinda Dwinell, assistant professor of physiology at the HMGC (MCW); Audrey Gasch, assistant professor of genetics and GCW member (UW-Madison); Andrew Greene, professor of physiology and director of the BBC (MCW); Jozef Lazar, associate professor of dermatology at the HMGC (MCW); Mingyu Liang, associate professor of physiology (MCW); Shama Mirza, assistant professor of biochemistry at the BBC (MCW); Craig Struble, associate professor of mathematics, statistics and computer science (Marquette University); Scott Terhune, assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at the BBC (MCW); James Thomson, professor of anatomy and GCW member (UW-Madison); and Simon Twigger, assistant professor of physiology at the BBC (MCW).

For questions or more information on the Wisconsin Center of Excellence, contact Theresa Lins, center coordinator, at