TIGR-Virginia Tech collaborations offer critical mass of microbiologists

BLACKSBURG, Va., March 11, 2005 – To enhance collaborative opportunities between Virginia Tech scientists and those at The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) of Rockville, Md., seven TIGR faculty members visited Virginia Tech Wednesday, March 2.

Virginia Tech and TIGR signed a memorandum of understanding in November to create an alliance to enrich the university's basic research capacity in the life sciences and enhance TIGR's computational and experimental capacity. The focus of the joint research projects will be in the areas of microbial, plant, and animal genomics and functional genomics, which have many applications to human health, agriculture, and biodefense.

Jim Blair, associate vice president for research at Virginia Tech and who organized the visit, said, "We want to foster and nurture this relationship. The sooner we get faculty members talking to faculty members the better."

Virginia Tech Provost Mark McNamee said, "We have the potential to have the largest, most diverse group of microbiologists in the country. There is almost a critical mass just in this room," he observed of the luncheon meeting of researchers from TIGR and Virginia Tech, which included faculty members from the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, who hosted the lunch, as well as from the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine's Center for Molecular Medicine and Infectious Diseases (CMMID), the Computer Science Department, the Biology Department, and Fralin Biotechnology Center. "It's a great opportunity and we are in the midst of a cluster hire of infectious disease experts that will add more," said McNamee.

Christopher Lawrence, research associate professor at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, suggested the university and TIGR "could position ourselves for a graduate training program."

Present from TIGR were:

==> TIGR President and Director Claire Fraser, who led the TIGR teams that sequenced the genomes of Mycoplasma genitalium, the spirochetes Treponema pallidum and Borrelia burgdorfei, and two species of Chlamydia. She now oversees several major research projects, including the genomic sequencing of Bacillus anthracis, and is a member of National Research Council committees on countering bioterrorism and on domestic animal genomics.

==> Vish Nene, who has worked in the field of molecular parasitology for more than 21 years, previously at the International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya, where he studied Theileria parva, a tick-transmitted intracellular protozoan pathogen which causes a fatal disease in cattle called East Coast fever. His current focus is genomics of eukaryotic protozoan pathogens as a means to understand their biology and interactions with mammalian hosts.

==> Naomi Ward, who is involved in whole genome sequencing projects on bacteria of environmental interest, including the methanotroph Methylococcus capsulatus, the sulfur-metabolizing Silicibacter pomeroyi, and Gemmata obscuriglobus, a member of the planctomycete group.

==> Barbara Methè, who leads the complete genome sequencing, annotation, and comparative genomic analysis projects of a variety of prokaryotes. She is investigating free-living prokaryotes found in the environment, including extreme environments. She is interested in the roles these microorganisms play in the biogeochemical processes and ecology of their respective environments and how this knowledge can be applied to the sustainability of the planet, for example through bioremediation efforts or the discovery of novel proteins.

==> Ewen Kirkness, who does comparative mammalian genomics and mapping of quantitative trait loci in domesticated mammals. His aim is to identify genomic variation between individuals that can be used to characterize the genetic basis of traits and susceptibility to disease.

==> Najib M. El-Sayed, whose focus is the functional and comparative analysis of the genomes of vector-borne human pathogens with emphasis on parasites that cause African sleeping sickness, Chagas' disease, and bilharzia. His laboratory is also using microarrays to analyze gene expression patterns and investigate the gene networks responsible for human serum sensitivity. The lab is assessing the use of RNA interference in high throughput format for the functional assessment of gene function. The lab is also doing large-scale expression studies on two methanogenic archea: Methanococcus jannaschii and Methanobacterium thermoautotrophicum.

==> Chris Town, who is refining gene annotation of Arabidopsis and working on the model legume, Medicago truncatula. His group is one of two in the United States involved in an international consortium working on sequencing the entire euchromatic gene space of this organism within the next three years.

Learn more about the work of TIGR faculty members at http://www.tigr.org/faculty.

The TIGR contingent met with the computational biology and bioinformatics faculty, hosted by Lenwood Heath, professor of computer science, and Rahul V. Kulkarni, assistant professor of physics; faculty members from biology and physics in a session hosted by Steven Melville, associate professor of biology, and Beate Schmittman, professor of physics; faculty members in the Fralin Biotechnology Center, hosted by Brenda Winkel, professor of biology, and Glenda Gillaspy, assistant professor of biochemistry; and CMMID faculty members, along with Jake Tu, associate professor of biochemistry, hosted by biomedical science professors Steve Boyle and Nammalwar Sriranganathan.

Fraser said, "The visit has resulted in lots of leads to follow up and lots of potential areas of over lap."

McNamee said, "I am excited about the possibilities of advancing knowledge, doing good science, and collaboratively doing things that alone we not do in quite the same way." He encourages Virginia Tech students and faculty to become involved. "I think these institutions are going to connect well," he said.

Individuals interested in learning more about collaborating with TIGR should contact Jim Blair at jblair@vt.edu.