Biology students to take part in genome project

Drs. Zhaohui Xu (right) and Paul Morris of Bowling Green State University

BOWLING GREEN, O.—Bowling Green State University biology undergraduates will soon be contributing to the body of knowledge in genomics while they learn. The University has been selected as one of 12 institutions nationwide to pilot the new Microbial Genome Annotation research program through the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute (DOE JGI).

Analysis of the genomes of microorganisms is an important new tool in understanding the biology of organisms. With new technologies available, complete bacterial genomes can be sequenced in a matter of hours. Undergraduates will have the opportunity to computationally map the DNA of a microbe, conduct experiments to test their findings, publish their work in the worldwide online genome database—and gain valuable skills in genomics and bioinformatics.

Bowling Green will collaborate with the Department of Energy and the other 11 pilot schools, which include Michigan State University, UCLA, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, the University of South Florida and Hiram College.

“The scope of the project is to work in teams,” an important skill for young scientists to learn, said BGSU project director Dr. Zhaohui Xu, an assistant professor of biological sciences.

Xu became aware of the JGI program after meeting Dr. Cheryl Kerfeld, director of the JGI Education Department and leader of the nationwide initiative, at a bioinformatics workshop. Bowling Green's reputation in microbiology and genomics, along with the support of the biological sciences department, helped secure its place as one of the first universities in the country to collaborate on the project, Xu said.

The first genome to be analyzed is a microbe found in Indonesian volcanic hot springs. “If we can learn how life can survive in these environments, it can help us address some of our environmental and energy challenges today,” Xu said.

Assembling DNA sequences into complete genomes may also allow scientists to identify enzymes for potential commercial applications. Though invisible to the naked eye, microbes are powerful organisms that play a critical role in the atmosphere and the environment, and can have many practical applications, such as cleaning up oil spills and conversion of plant products to ethanol.

Changing science education, building knowledge

The project represents an important step for science in general and for BGSU in particular, according to Dr. Paul Morris, a professor of biology.

In the initial phase, beginning in January, Xu, Morris and their students will use the Collaborative Genomics Annotation Tool, a bioinformatic platform being developed by Kerfeld and colleagues at the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, to begin decoding the first genome, which will also be worked on by the other participating schools. Then, each school will choose a microbe to “adopt,” Xu said, and the project will expand to other biology faculty, who can incorporate the organism into their courses across the curriculum. Xu has already been working on a special microbial genomics course dedicated to the genome analysis program.

As one of the first participants, BGSU will help develop new models to be disseminated nationally that will help transform life sciences education.

Because the students' data will be credited with their names attached, there is considerable accountability involved, the two biologists said. Responsibility for quality control will rest with participating faculty, who will conduct backup checking of data.

The excitement of discovery is powerful, Morris said. “They'll be looking at stuff no one has seen before.”

A vast undertaking

The originator of the groundbreaking Human Genome Project, which was later taken over by the National Institutes of Health in the late 1980s, the Department of Energy is the world leader of genomic research of microbes that contribute to environmental stewardship and clean energy, Xu said.

The DOE Joint Genome Institute, supported by the DOE Office of Science, unites the expertise of five national laboratories: Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Pacific Northwest, along with the Stanford Human Genome Center, to advance genomics in support of the DOE mission related to clean energy generation and environmental characterization and cleanup.

“They have an ambitious plan,” Xu explained, noting that the JGI hopes to sequence the genomes of all cultured bacteria and archaea in the next few years. With more than 5,000 genomes, averaging 4 to 5 million base pairs each, “they need the input of a big community, including our BGSU undergraduates, to annotate all that,” Xu said. There are about 100 genomes “in the pipeline now,” she added.

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Media Contact: Bonnie Blankinship, phone 419-372-2618 or email bblanki@bgsu.edu .

(Posted December 12, 2007 )