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Welcome to the new world of genomics

by Janice Hamilton

TsangThese days, the buzz in science labs and in the newspapers is all about the progress being made in genomics research. Concordia's new Centre for Structural and Functional Genomics offers Montreal scientists some of the facilities they need to be part of that action.

Today, the centre consists of three mostly empty former classrooms, but director Dr. Adrian Tsang is supervising the arrival of computers, software, centrifuges and a laser microscope, which will be able to generate three-dimensional images. Eventually, he expects that up to 120 researchers from Concordia and other universities will be making use of the centre's specialized equipment for their projects. A staff of six will provide users with guidance in handling the complex instruments.

Tsang, an associate professor of biology, explains that while genetics is a long-established field involving the study of inheritance and mutations one gene at a time, the term genomics has only been around for about 10 years. "In genomics, we now have the technology and computer tools to analyze every single gene in an organism, so we can deal with global questions about the entire organism," he said. "It's a broader, more systematic approach."

Scientists already know the complete genetic make-up of yeast, a type of worm and the fruit fly, and a race to identify all human genes is nearing completion. Identifying the genes, however, is only the first step. They then must put this information together and make sense of it.

In functional genomics, researchers are trying to discover the role of each gene. In structural genomics, they are discovering where each gene resides in sequence on the DNA. The Concordia centre is designed to deal primarily with functional genomics, although some structural research can also be done here. And because there are many methods of identifying functions, Tsang continued, the lab will have a variety of instruments.

The centre is expected to be part of Genome Quebec, a proposed network that includes all universities and major research institutes in the province. There are four other similar networks being planned across Canada, and each tries to facilitate information-sharing among particip- ants and avoid duplication of expensive equipment.

Concordia has received start-up funds totalling $3.6 million for four years: $1.25 million each from the federal and Quebec governments, and $1 million from private-sector partner BioChem Pharma Inc., of Laval. BioChem Pharma CEO Dr. Francesco Bellini (L BSc 72) personally donated another $100,000.

"The government has made it clear that unless both the universities and private sector participate, there won't be any money for anyone," Tsang said. He suggested that the private sector benefits because universities can stay on the cutting edge of basic, long-term research, while corporations focus on commercial applications. Also, employees are very hard to find, so industries hope that people who are educated here will choose to stay.

Universities like the approach because it stimulates a great deal of interaction between researchers, and because findings are immediately made public so no one can patent these discoveries for their own gain.

Tsang added that pharmaceutical companies like BioChem Pharma will benefit greatly from advances in genomics. In the past, pharmaceutical chemists came up with many products and then tested their disease-fighting abilities in the lab. "In the future, genomics will allow scientists to find out the specific cause of a disease, identify the problematic molecule and design a molecule to block it. This will significantly reduce the time and cost of drug development."

"There is no limit to the applications of genomics research," he said. "Within our life span, we'll figure out what types of disease genes we carry, there will be much more precise diagnosis, and new types of medicine will come on board. It is so exciting, and at the same time it's a bit scary, so we'll have to evaluate the ethics and put safeguards in place."


Projects here concentrate on fungi

Concordia researchers are focusing their genomics experiments on fungi. These are simple organisms with fewer than 10,000 genes, compared to the 100,000 genes in humans. Yeast is a particularly useful experimental subject: because of its role in beer and bread-making, a great deal is already known about it.

Biologist Reginald Storms is part of a consortium that is trying to determine the function of every single yeast gene by removing a gene and putting a bar-code marker in its place. They use a technique known as gene-chip technology to read the genetic bar-code marker. Then researchers experiment to see how the organism grows under various conditions.

Adrian Tsang is working on a number of projects. In one study, he is trying to identify the signals that tell cells when to multiply and when to stop multiplying and differentiate into other types of cells. In another experiment, he exposes a slime mould to carcinogens and UV light. Normally, cells either mount a specific response to protect themselves, or they commit suicide. He is looking at the slime mould's responses under these circumstances. These mechanisms have implications for understanding cancer, since cancer cells have forgotten how to commit suicide.

Justin Powlowski and Paul Joyce, both of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, are carrying out a study that combines basic and applied research, exploring the natural ability of a type of fungus to break down phenolic-type toxic waste. Fungi normally make enzymes that break down the organism's environment for food. Genomics allows researchers to identify the genes that control their production, and then harness these genes to get the cells to produce more of the enzyme, or to manufacture another product.

Patrick Gulick is studying the responses of plants to stress, especially salt tolerance. If there is extensive global warming, a lot of land will be covered by the ocean, so Dr. Gulick and his team are looking at plants that can grow in high-salt environments. Gulick and Luc Varin (Biology) are also studying various diseases that affect plants to find out what makes these pathogens so harmful.

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