Oak Ridge National Laboratory


News Release

Media Contact: Ron Walli (wallira@ornl.gov)
Communications and External Relations


ORNL receives $21.7 million for DOE's Genomes to Life

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., July 23, 2002 — Oak Ridge National Laboratory is named on three of five Department of Energy awards for the Genomes to Life program and will receive about $21.7 million as part of a massive effort that promises payoffs for energy and environmental applications.

Through the Genomes to Life program, researchers hope to identify and characterize protein complexes, the molecular machines of life. A better understanding of protein complexes and their regulation in microbial organisms could lead to advances in a number of areas, including improving our ability to clean up metals in contaminated soil. Through this effort, researchers also expect to learn more about the earth's carbon cycle and ways to produce clean energy sources.

Michelle Buchanan, who will be the director of the new Genomes to Life Center for Molecular and Cellular Systems, noted that the project is an ambitious one. The work will require new analytical and computational tools to generate critical information that will revolutionize biological research.

"This is the next big step in biology - putting the information from the genome program to work," said Buchanan, director of ORNL's Chemical Sciences Division. "This is very much something for which the national labs are ideally suited because of their multidisciplinary teams and their exceptional analytical and computational capabilities."

A key partner for the three-year $23.4 million project is Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Together, ORNL and PNNL have the most comprehensive collection of analytical tools within the DOE lab system. These tools are necessary to better understand microbes on a molecular level.

Much of the challenge in this project lies in isolating proteins from a single cell, which can be an expensive and time-consuming process. PNNL and ORNL are devising new approaches to isolate these complexes in a robust, high-throughput fashion. In addition, powerful mass spectrometry-based techniques at ORNL and PNNL will provide an unparalleled ability to identify and characterize these protein complexes. The researchers plan to employ technologies to automate the protein isolation and analysis process and incorporate computational tools to interpret, store and disseminate data to the greater biological research community.

"We believe our incredible staff, the unique and powerful technologies they have developed, and their innovative approach to systems biology will help us provide answers to questions that could make a difference in cleaning up the environment and gaining insight into disease development," said Steve Wiley, PNNL program manager and deputy director for the new center. Frank Larimer of ORNL is the other deputy director.

Also named on the award to create the center are Argonne National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, the University of North Carolina and the University of Utah. ORNL will receive a total of about $11 million while PNNL will receive about $10.6 million.

In the second of the three DOE awards, ORNL is a partner with Sandia National Laboratories to develop advanced computational methods and computational infrastructure to support the biological analysis and simulation of protein complexes, their regulation and collective behavior.

"Biology is undergoing a major transformation that will be enabled and ultimately driven by computation," said Thomas Zacharia, ORNL associate lab director for Computing and Computational Sciences.

Al Geist, co-principal investigator on the project and an ORNL corporate fellow, expanded on Zacharia's observation, saying, "High-performance computing is essential to modern high-throughput experimental biology. Genomes to Life will require even more use of high-performance data analysis, modeling and simulation methods to help us understand complex biological systems."

ORNL and Sandia researchers bring substantial expertise in the application of supercomputers for science. ORNL's 4.5 teraflop supercomputer, listed recently as the eighth fastest in the world, will assist researchers in their quests to advance the understanding of complex biological systems and predict their behavior.

ORNL will receive a total of $5.7 million of this $19.1 million project. Other partners are Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Los Alamos National Laboratory; National Center for Genome Resources, Santa Fe, N.M.; University of California, San Diego; University of Tennessee; University of Michigan; The Molecular Science Institute, Berkeley, Calif.; University of California, Santa Barbara; and University of Illinois.

In the third DOE project, ORNL is a partner with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and will receive a total of about $5 million. The goal is to develop computational models to describe and predict the behavior of gene regulatory networks in microbes in response to environmental conditions found in sites contaminated with metals and radionuclides.

Other partners in the $36.6 million project are the University of California, Berkeley; University of Missouri, Columbia; University of Washington, Seattle; and Diversa of San Diego. Jizhong Zhou of ORNL's Environmental Sciences Division is a co-principal investigator for the project.

The DOE Genomes to Life program awards total $103 million for research that will be conducted at six national laboratories, 16 universities and research hospitals, and four private research institutes.

ORNL is a DOE multiprogram research facility managed by UT-Battelle.