Jackson Laboratory joins National Centers for Systems Biology

$15M grant from NIGMS launches field of 'systems genetics'

Bar Harbor, Maine - A $15.1 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant has been awarded to a team of Jackson Laboratory researchers with a new, "systems" approach to studying the genetics of health and disease.

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) is awarding the five-year grant for $15,073,585 under a "National Centers for Systems Biology" program. The new center's goal: to understand how the 30,000 or so genes every human is born with interact to develop a healthy individual or lead to diseases.

"The Jackson center will exploit the power of the mouse model to shed light on how complex traits evolve," says Jeremy M. Berg, Ph.D., director of NIGMS. "The combination of systems biology, statistical genetics and genomics promises to yield important insights into common human diseases."

Jackson Senior Staff Scientist Gary Churchill, the principal investigator on the grant, explains: "Heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's disease, obesity and diabetes -- the diseases that represent our nation's greatest public health burden -- are all extremely complex and may involve hundreds of different genes, as well as diet and other environmental factors."

Using innovative computational approaches, Churchill and Jackson collaborators have made important progress in understanding how the mouse genome is organized overall. Starting with this "big picture" perspective, they plan to zero in on clusters of genes that are associated with complex diseases. "It turns out that most of those genes, individually, are perfectly benign," Churchill says. "It's only in certain combinations that these diseases arise."

The research world uses laboratory mice to study genetic diseases because mice and humans share the vast majority of their genes. Different inbred families or "strains" are somewhat analogous to different human populations, so scientists can study what combinations of genes are more likely to cause, say, hypertension. And, unlike humans, mice can live in a laboratory setting in which breeding, diet and other environmental factors can be carefully controlled.

The new Center teams computational biologists, molecular biologists and geneticists at The Jackson Laboratory (Executive Research Fellow and Senior Staff Scientist Ken Paigen, Ph.D.; Associate Staff Scientist Joel Graber, Ph.D.; and Associate Research Scientist Petko Petkov, Ph.D.) and collaborators at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and Perlegen Sciences, Inc., in Mountain View, Calif.

The new Jackson center joins six other NIGMS-funded systems biology centers, at Harvard University, Princeton University, Case Western Reserve University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Washington, and the Institute for Systems Biology, a seventh new center also announced this week. More information on the National Centers for Systems Biology program is available at http://www.nigms.nih.gov/Initiatives/SysBio/.

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The Jackson Laboratory, founded in 1929, is the world's largest mammalian genetics research institution, with facilities in Bar Harbor, Maine, and West Sacramento, Calif. Its research staff of more than 450 investigates the genetic basis of cancers, heart disease, osteoporosis, Alzheimer's disease, glaucoma, diabetes, and many other human diseases and disorders. The Laboratory is also the world's source for nearly 3,000 strains of genetically defined mice, home of the Mouse Genome Database and many other publicly available information resources, and an international hub for scientific courses, conferences, training and education.


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