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NIGMS logo   National Institute of General Medical Sciences
Mission | Important Events | Legislative Chronology | Director | Programs | Appropriations


The National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) primarily supports basic biomedical research that is not targeted to specific diseases or disorders. Because scientific breakthroughs often originate from such untargeted studies, NIGMS-funded work has contributed substantially to the tremendous progress that biomedical research has made in recent years. The institute’s training programs help provide the most critical element of good research: well-prepared scientists.

Each year, NIGMS-supported scientists make major advances in understanding fundamental life processes. In the course of answering basic research questions, these investigators also increase our knowledge about the mechanisms involved in certain diseases. Other grantees develop important new tools and techniques, many of which have applications in the biotechnology industry. In recognition of the significance of their work, a number of NIGMS grantees have received the Nobel Prize and other high scientific honors.

NIGMS has three divisions that support research and research training in basic biomedical science fields: Cell Biology and Biophysics; Genetics and Developmental Biology; and Pharmacology, Physiology, and Biological Chemistry. The institute also has a Division of Minority Opportunities in Research, which administers programs that are designed to increase the number of minority biomedical scientists. Finally, NIGMS has a Division of Extramural Activities, which handles institute grant-related functions.

NIGMS was established in 1962. In fiscal year 2001, its budget was $1.535 billion. The vast majority of this money funds grants to scientists at universities, medical schools, hospitals, and research institutions throughout the country. At any given time, NIGMS supports over 4,000 research grants – about 8.5 percent of the grants funded by NIH as a whole. NIGMS also supports nearly half of the predoctoral trainees and about 27 percent of all the trainees who receive assistance from NIH.

The institute places great emphasis on the support of individual, investigator-initiated research grants. It funds a limited number of research center grants in selected fields, such as trauma and burn research and the pharmacological sciences. In addition, NIGMS funds several research contracts that provide important resources for basic scientists.

NIGMS continues to support major initiatives in several areas: pharmacogenetics (how a person’s genetic make-up influences the way a medicine works in his or her body); structural genomics (using gene sequence information to determine the structures of proteins, which can yield insights into protein function); the promotion of integrative and collaborative approaches to research; and the application of physics, engineering, mathematics, and computer science to complex biological problems. In addition to these and other specific initiatives, a major goal of the institute is to achieve a complete understanding of the normal functioning of the living cell. This would include a complete catalog of a cell’s molecules, as well as the structures and functions of these molecules; a “wiring diagram” that shows the linkages between cellular components; and ultimately an understanding of cellular behavior and interactions between cells in time and space. Ultimately, this effort will lead to an understanding of how cellular functions become disordered in disease.

NIGMS research training programs recognize the interdisciplinary nature of biomedical research today, and stress approaches to biological problems that cut across disciplinary and departmental lines. Such experience prepares trainees to pursue creative research careers in a wide variety of areas. Among the fields in which NIGMS has long offered institutional predoctoral training programs are the cellular, biochemical, and molecular sciences; genetics; the pharmacological sciences; and systems and integrative biology. Another longstanding training activity, the Medical Scientist Training Program, provides investigators who can bridge the gap between basic and clinical research by supporting research training leading to the combined M.D.-Ph.D. degree. Several newer training programs were designed to capitalize on rapidly developing areas of science, including bioinformatics and computational biology, biotechnology, molecular biophysics, and the interface between the fields of chemistry and biology.

The institute supports postdoctoral research through individual fellowships in areas related to its scientific programs and institutional postdoctoral training in the fields of anesthesiology, clinical pharmacology, medical genetics, and trauma and burn injury.

NIGMS also has a Pharmacology Research Associate Program, in which postdoctoral scientists pursue research in NIH or FDA laboratories. It is intended for individuals with backgrounds in the basic or clinical sciences who wish to obtain advanced experience in an area of pharmacology, or for those who are already pharmacologists to gain experience in new fields.

Important Events in NIGMS History

July 16, 1958 – The Secretary, DHEW, approved establishment of the Division of General Medical Sciences.

October 17, 1962 – Congress authorized establishment of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

January 30, 1963 – The DHEW Secretary approved establishment of NIGMS.

October 8, 1963 – The National Advisory General Medical Sciences Council held its first meeting.

October 13, 1982 – NIGMS celebrated its 20th anniversary by establishing the DeWitt Stetten, Jr., Lecture. Dr. David S. Hogness, Stanford University, gave the first lecture.

October 1, 1989 – Administration of the Minority Biomedical Research Support Program was transferred to NIGMS from the NIH Division of Research Resources.

May 14, 2001 – NIGMS created the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology.

NIGMS Legislative Chronology

October 17, 1962 – Public Law 87-838 authorized the Surgeon General to establish an institute to conduct and support research and research training in the general or basic medical sciences and in related natural or behavioral sciences that have significance for two or more other institutes of NIH, or that lie outside the general areas of responsibility of any other institute.

Biographical Sketch of NIGMS Director Marvin Cassman, Ph.D.

Dr. Cassman was named NIGMS director on August 18, 1996. Prior to his appointment as permanent director, he had served the institute as deputy director since 1989 and as acting director since 1993.

His other positions within the institute included director, Biophysics and Physiological Sciences Program Branch (1985-1989) and chief, molecular basis of disease section of the Cellular and Molecular Basis of Disease Program Branch (1978-1984). He has also worked in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the President, as a senior policy analyst.

After receiving undergraduate degrees from the University of Chicago, Dr. Cassman earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1965 at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Following a postdoctoral fellowship in the laboratory of Dr. Howard Schachman at the University of California, Berkeley, he joined the faculty of the University of California, Santa Barbara. He came to NIGMS in 1975 as a health scientist administrator in the Cellular and Molecular Basis of Disease Program Branch.

He has received many honors and awards for his work at NIGMS, including the 1991 Presidential Meritorious Executive Rank Award and the 1983 NIH Director’s Award.

NIGMS Directors

Date of Birth
In Office From
Clinton C. Powell   July 1962 July 1964
Frederick L. Stone Mar. 31, 1915 Aug. 1, 1964 June 1965
DeWitt Stetten, Jr. May 31, 1909 Oct. 1, 1970 August 1974
Ruth L. Kirschstein Oct. 12, 1926 Sept. 1, 1974 Nov. 23, 1993
Marvin Cassman Apr. 4, 1936 Aug. 18, 1996  

Major Programs

Division of Cell Biology and Biophysics

The Division of Cell Biology and Biophysics seeks greater understanding of the structure and function of cells, cellular components, and the biological macromolecules that make up these components. The long-range goal of the division is to find ways to prevent, treat, and cure diseases that result from disturbed or abnormal cellular activity.

The division has two components: the Biophysics Branch and Cell Biology Branch.

Biophysics Branch

This branch supports studies in the areas of biophysics and bioengineering, disciplines that use techniques derived from the physical sciences to examine the structures and properties of biological substances.

Areas of emphasis in biophysical research include the determination of the structures of proteins and nucleic acids; studies of the structural features that determine macromolecular conformation; the structural analysis of macromolecular interactions and of ligand-macromolecular interactions; structural genomics, including the development of high-throughput methods for structure determination; bioinformatics as it relates to protein and nucleic acid structure; the development of physical methodology for the analysis of molecular structure; and the development and use of theoretical methods to investigate biological systems.

Bioengineering research interests include development and refinement of instruments needed to conduct research in the areas described above. These include nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, mass spectroscopy, and other forms of spectroscopy; X-ray and other scattering techniques; microscopy; and cell separation techniques. This area of research also includes development of new bioanalytical methods and biomaterials.

Cell Biology Branch

This branch supports general studies on the molecular and biochemical activities of cells and subcellular components, as well as on the role of cellular dysfunction in disease. Emphasis is placed on research with applications to more than one cell type, model system, or disease state, as well as research that does not fall within the disease-oriented mission of another NIH component.

Representative studies include those on plasma and intracellular membranes, receptors, and signal transduction mechanisms; the structure and function of the cytoskeleton; cell motility; the regulation of protein and membrane synthesis and activation of cell growth; subcellular organelles; cell division; lipid biochemistry; and computational approaches to the understanding of complex interactive systems.

Division of Genetics and Developmental Biology

The Division of Genetics and Developmental Biology supports studies directed toward gaining a better understanding of the fundamental mechanisms of inheritance and development. These studies underlie the more targeted research projects supported by other NIH components. Most of the projects supported by the division make use of non-human model systems. It is expected that the results of these studies will lead to the eventual diagnosis, prevention, therapy, and cure of human genetic and developmental disorders.

Among areas under active investigation are cell growth and differentiation; chromosome organization and mechanics; control of gene expression; control of the cell cycle; developmental genetics and cell biology; extrachromosomal inheritance; mechanisms of mutagenesis; neurogenetics and the genetics of behavior; population genetics, evolution, and the genetics of complex traits; the replication, recombination, and repair of genes; and the genetics of complex systems.

Along with its research and research training activities, the Division of Genetics and Developmental Biology supports the Human Genetic Cell Repository, a unique resource for scientists studying medical and human genetics. The repository establishes and stores well-characterized cultured cell lines representing metabolic and chromosomal disorders collected from patients and their families. These cells and DNA extracted from them, as well as somatic cell hybrids, are provided to qualified investigators at modest charge, thus permitting the researchers to study the molecular and cellular aspects of many rare genetic conditions using material that would otherwise be difficult to obtain.

Division of Minority Opportunities in Research

The Division of Minority Opportunities in Research administers research and research training programs aimed at increasing the number of minority biomedical scientists. Support is available at the undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral, and faculty levels, as well as for education and research infrastructure improvements.

The division has three components: the Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) Branch, Minority Biomedical Research Support (MBRS) Branch, and Special Initiatives.

MARC Branch

The MARC Branch offers special research training support to 4-year colleges, universities, and health professional schools with substantial enrollments of such minorities as African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans (including Alaska Natives), and natives of the U.S. Pacific Islands.

Goals are to increase the number and competitiveness of minorities engaged in biomedical research by strengthening the science curricula at minority-serving institutions and increasing the research training opportunities for students and faculty at these institutions. MARC funds research training for honors undergraduates, predoctoral fellowships, faculty fellowships, and visiting scientist fellowships.

MBRS Branch

To increase the number of researchers who are members of minority groups underrepresented in biomedical sciences, the MBRS Branch awards grants to 2- or 4-year colleges, universities, and health professional schools with substantial enrollments of minorities. These grants support research by faculty members, strengthen the institutions’ biomedical research capabilities, and provide opportunities for students to work as part of a research team.

Special Initiatives

The division develops and launches new research and research training programs and other initiatives for minority scientists. These include the Bridges to the Future Programs (Bridges to the Baccalaureate and Bridges to the Doctorate), which are co-sponsored by the NIH National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities.

The division is also responsible for organizing meetings and other activities that build networks among individuals and educational institutions to promote minority participation in sponsored research.

Division of Pharmacology, Physiology, and Biological Chemistry

The Division of Pharmacology, Physiology, and Biological Chemistry supports a broad spectrum of research and research training aimed at improving the molecular- level understanding of fundamental biological processes and discovering approaches to their control. Research supported by the division takes a multifaceted approach to problems in pharmacology, physiology, biochemistry, and biorelated chemistry that are either very basic in nature or that have implications for more than one disease area.

The goals of supported research include an improved understanding of drug action and mechanisms of anesthesia; new methods and targets for drug discovery; advances in natural products synthesis; an enhanced understanding of biological catalysis; a greater knowledge of metabolic regulation and fundamental physiological processes; and the integration and application of basic physiological, pharmacological, and biochemical research to clinical issues in anesthesia, clinical pharmacology, and trauma and burn injury. The division also supports quantitative studies of complex systems involving areas within its scope.

Biochemistry and Biorelated Chemistry Branch

This branch supports basic research in areas of biochemistry, such as enzyme catalysis and regulation, bioenergetics and redox biochemistry, and glycoconjugates. It also supports research in areas of biorelated chemistry, such as organic synthesis and methodology, as well as bioinorganic and medicinal chemistry.

Examples of biochemical investigations include studies of the chemical basis of the regulation and catalytic properties of enzymes, intermediary metabolism, the chemical and physical properties of the cellular systems for electron transport and energy transduction, and the biosynthesis and structure of carbohydrate-containing macromolecules.

Chemical investigation examples include the development of strategies for natural products synthesis, studies of the structure and function of small molecules, the chemistry of metal ions in biological systems, the development of novel medicinal agents or mimics of macromolecular function, and the creation of new synthetic methodologies.

The branch also supports studies in biotechnology. This work focuses on the development of biological catalysts, including living organisms, for the production of useful chemical compounds, medicinal or diagnostic agents, or probes of biological phenomena.

Pharmacological and Physiological Sciences Branch

This branch supports research in pharmacology, anesthesiology, and the physiological sciences. Studies range from the molecular to the organismal level, and can be clinical in nature.

In the pharmacological sciences and anesthesiology, important areas being studied are the effects of drugs on the body and the body’s effects on drugs, as well as how these effects vary from individual to individual. This includes traditional investigations of the absorption, transport, distribution, metabolism, biotransformation, and excretion of drugs, as well as drug delivery strategies and determinants of bioavailability. It also includes a newer focus on pharmacogenetics, linking phenotype to genotype in drug action.

Understanding the mechanisms of drug interactions with receptors and signal transduction mechanisms is another major focus of this section. This includes studies of soluble and membrane-bound receptors and channels, secondary and tertiary messenger systems, mediator molecules, and their regulation and pharmacological manipulation.

Examples of studies in the physiological sciences include basic and clinical investigations directed toward improving understanding of the total body response to injury, including the biochemical and physiological changes induced by trauma. Research supported in this section includes studies on the etiology of post-traumatic sepsis and the mechanisms of immunosuppression, wound healing, and hypermetabolism following injury. This section also supports research in basic molecular immunobiology, which focuses on using cells of the immune system to study fundamental cellular and molecular mechanisms.

Division of Extramural Activities

The Division of Extramural Activities is responsible for the grant-related activities of the institute, including the receipt, referral, and advisory council review of applications as well as grant funding and management. It maintains an overview of the institute’s scientific and financial status and advises the NIGMS director and other key staff on policy matters and on the planning, development, and scientific administration of institute research and training programs. The division recommends budget allocations for the various NIGMS programs. It also acts as a liaison with other NIH components for activities relating to grant application assignments and foreign grants.

Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology

The Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology supports research and research training in areas that join biology with the computer sciences, engineering, mathematics, and physics. Toward this end, the center develops and manages programs in computational biology, such as the generation of mathematical models of biological networks, the development of modeling and simulation tools, the conduct of basic theoretical studies related to network organization and dynamic processes, and the development of methods for the analysis and dissemination of computational models. The center also defines the Institute's needs for database development and applications, and it collaborates with other NIH components and Federal agencies in developing policies in this area. Other center activities include the support of multidisciplinary collaborations and of workshops, courses, and specialized meetings.

The center oversees NIH's Biomedical Information Science and Technology Initiative (BISTI) through its management of the BISTI Consortium (BISTIC). The goal of this initiative is to make optimal use of computer science and technology to address problems in biology and medicine. BISTIC is composed of senior-level representatives from the NIH institutes and centers and representatives of other Federal agencies concerned with bioinformatics and computer-based applications.

NIGMS Appropriations – Grants and Direct Operations

Fiscal year
Total grants
Direct operations
(Amounts in thousands of dollars)

Includes R&D contracts.

This page was last reviewed on July 15, 2002 .

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