When one gene isn't enough

Now that scientists have produced a map of the human genome, the University is launching a new institute to exploit the research opportunities the map presents.

The new Penn Genomics Institute will bring together experts in medicine, biology, engineering and computer science to conduct interdisciplinary research.

Genomics research takes advantage of technological advances that make it easier to analyze complex biological systems. The advances hold the promise of better understanding of genetic disorders and pathogenic diseases such as cancer and autism.

“Most of the genetic disorders we understand now are straightforward; they are based on a single mutation,” said David S. Roos, professor of biology and head of the new institute. “But there are many other diseases that are in fact a function of many different mutations or polymorphisms in mutations. If you want to understand these polymorphic traits, you need to be able to look at all the genes, all at once.”

Advances in computing technology make this possible.

“Of all the 30,000 or 40,000 genes in a human genome, which ones are affected? It’s unlikely that a single gene will determine your likelihood to be infected by HIV or the flu,” Roos said.

In his State of the University address last fall, Provost Robert Barchi called genomics “the next revolution in the life sciences,” adding, “If you think back to the 1970s, to the advent of the enzyme technology that allowed us to manipulate RNA and DNA, and the introduction of molecular biology to the life sciences and what a transition that made, I would say that transition is minor compared to the tidal wave that you will see with genomics.”

The institute builds on an already well-established genomic research program at Penn. Penn scientists were part of the team that mapped chromosome 23 as part of the Human Genome Project, and Roos called Penn’s computational biology program one of the first and most extensive in the country.

Penn anticipates that through grants and fundraising, more than $75 million will be available to support genomics research over the next five years. In addition, to pursue genomic research on cancer, a new cancer genomics program has also been created in the Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute at the University of Pennsylvania Cancer Center.


Originally published on March 1, 2001