A small, independent Berkeley lab has made it to the big time.
Three weeks ago the federal government’s National Human Genome Research Institute, best known as a key funder in the effort to map the human genome, named the nonprofit Molecular Sciences Institute on Shattuck Avenue one of five “Centers of Excellence in Genomic Science” in the country.
The award comes with a five-year, $15.5 million grant that MSI will use to study how proteins interact within Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a single-cell organism better known as baker’s yeast. In the end, scientists hope MSI’s research will lead to cures for complex human diseases such as cancer.
MSI joins heavyweights like Stanford and Yale in winning a genomic science grant.
“This is huge,” said Lauren Ha, MSI’s vice president of administration. “We are at the same time relieved, excited, honored, stressed – all of these feelings rolled up into one.”
MSI was started in San Diego in 1996 with a $10 million “no strings attached” seed grant from Philip Morris. The lab, which moved to Berkeley in 1998, employs 18 scientists and has partnership agreements with researchers at UC Berkeley, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology.
A total of 40 researchers, including partners, will work on MSI’s newly-funded, five-year program known as the Alpha Project.
The Alpha Project focuses on protein interaction within yeast cells. But researchers hope their work will contribute to an understanding of how proteins interact in the cells of more complex organisms, like humans.
If researchers learn more about how proteins interact in humans, they can develop a deeper appreciation for how those interactions go wrong, creating disease.
“We still don’t know very much about how individual proteins within cells interact with each other to cause diseases or other complex outcomes,” explained Roger Brent, scientific director and president of MSI, in a written statement. “Our work aims to understand this choreography so that we can predict the results of cellular changes, and ultimately, how certain changes contribute to disease.”
MSI researchers, if successful, will pour their findings into a computer model that will predict cellular change in baker’s yeast. Eventually, Ha said, scientists may be able to build on such a computer model, constructing new models that could predict cellular change and disease in humans and contribute to the search for cures.
The computer modeling approach was one of the factors that inspired the federal government to award a grant to MSI.
“This is really the cutting edge right now of genomic or biological analysis,” said Jeff Schloss, program director for technological development coordination at the National Human Genome Research Institute.
If they make significant findings, MSI researchers hope to share them freely.
The lab is exploring the concept of “open source biology,” a new approach modeled after the “open source code” movement in computer technology, which allows techies to examine and improve the code at the root of a software program and pass it on.
“This is a nascent concept that we’re trying to build a community around,” said Ha. “This information should really be public.”
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