For the first time in history, infectious diseases researchers are armed with the complete genetic blueprints for many of the world's most common or deadly microbes. Today, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) announced a major new initiative that will use those blueprints to identify the precise molecules a microbe uses to infect people and cause illness or even death. Through a six-year, $25 million contract, NIAID will establish a functional genomics resource center at The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) in Rockville, Md. The center will provide tools, reagents and training for researchers and will play a key role in helping scientists use an organism's DNA code to learn new ways to attack that organism.
A microbe's genes are the blueprints for its proteins. Different proteins perform different duties: structural proteins compose the framework of a cell, toxins attack and damage a person's cells, and enzymes direct the hundreds of different chemical reactions a microbe requires for survival. The power of the genome is that it contains a complete, coded list of all the proteins a pathogen makes. Researchers use functional genomics to scour that list and determine what role each protein plays.
"This is an unprecedented period in infectious diseases research because we now know the genetic information that helps dictate the biology of many microbes," says NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. "The new functional genomics center will help us use that information to better understand the roles of individual genes and proteins, and to develop new drugs and vaccines that specifically target each organism."
With NIAID support, scientists from TIGR and other institutions have already finished sequencing the DNA of many pathogens, including those that cause tuberculosis, cholera, chlamydial infections and syphilis. Parts of the malaria and leishmania parasite genomes are also known. The functions of some microbe genes are suspected based on similarities to known genes, but a large number of genes are unique to one organism and have unknown functions.
The Pathogen Functional Genomics Resource Center will be a centralized training and resource facility that supports research on three to 10 important pathogens over the next three years. Establishing the center was a key recommendation of last year's scientific panel that met to develop an action plan for NIAID's genome research activities. The center will develop new technologies that enable scientists to more rapidly analyze gene function by simultaneously studying the whole genome rather than small regions or individual genes. The center will also train researchers on the latest techniques in functional genomics and will be a repository for required reagents. As the genomes of more pathogens are sequenced and technologies are developed to analyze the growing number of known genes, the center's repository function will become increasingly important.
The center's resources will be made available to the scientific community, and the procedures for access to those resources are currently in development. Updates on how researchers can apply to the center, plus additional information about the center's activities, can be found online at the following Web site: http://pfgrc.tigr.org. NIAID's Web site will also contain instructions for investigators who wish to apply.
NIAID is a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIAID supports basic and applied research to prevent, diagnose, and treat infectious and immune-mediated illnesses, including HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis, malaria, autoimmune disorders, asthma and allergies.
Press releases, fact sheets and other NIAID-related materials are available on the NIAID Web site at http://www.niaid.nih.gov.