UNC scientists win $1.6 million stimulus award to accelerate decoding of human genome

Thursday, October 15, 2009 — Dr. Xian Chen, Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics, who along with Dr. Morgan Giddings, Associate Professor of Microbiology and Immunology have been awarded a $1.6 million 2-year “Grand Opportunities” (GO) grant from the National Human Genome Research Institute.

UNC scientists win $1.6 million stimulus award to accelerate decoding of human genome
click to enlarge
Morgan Giddings, Ph.D., left, and Xian Chen, Ph.D., right. Photo by Courtney Potter.

Their effort will be part of a consortium of investigators studying the human genome blueprint, titled the “ENCyclopedia Of DNA Elements” (ENCODE). The consortium’s overall goal is to assemble a comprehensive catalog of functional elements in the human genome.

Ever since the first genome sequence was published in 2001, scientists have been working to figure out what the sequence means.  An analogy is walking across a desert and finding a large book in a language you don't know, then trying to figure out what the book is saying.

“In the case of the human genome, the book is a blueprint to building cells—and ultimately—the whole human.  But we don't yet understand its language,” said Morgan Giddings, Ph.D., associate professor of microbiology and immunology and of biomedical engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Giddings and UNC colleague Xian Chen, Ph.D., associate professor of biochemistry and biophysics, have been developing methods for decoding the human blueprint by studying the things the blueprint produces: proteins.  They relate the proteins back to the blueprint itself, to further decode the language of the genome blueprint.

Giddings and Chen have been awarded a $1.6 million 2-year “Grand Opportunities” (GO) grant from the National Human Genome Research Institute to accelerate this research.  Their effort will be part of a consortium of investigators studying the human genome blueprint, titled the “ENCyclopedia Of DNA Elements” (ENCODE).  The consortium’s overall goal is to assemble a comprehensive catalog of functional elements in the human genome.

With their GO grant, Giddings and Chen will generate, analyze, and release to the public large-scale data sets that allow linking of the protein products in cells to their genomic blueprints.  According to Giddings, “this will significantly promote our understanding of the language of the human genome, enhancing efforts to solve pressing human health issues like heart disease and cancer by understanding how errors in the blueprint lead to disease, and how we might fix those errors.”

Giddings is a member of the Carolina Center for Genome Sciences, and Chen is technology development director for the UNC Proteomics Core. The new grant will bring 4-6 new high-tech jobs to the Triangle.

NHGRI has awarded approximately $22 million of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act 2009 funds to support research aimed at identifying and understanding the genome’s functional elements.

Media contact: Les Lang, (919) 966-9366 or llang@med.unc.edu