The University Record, December 20, 1999

Medical School receives $4 million from HHMI for bioinformatics

By Sally Pobojewski
News and Information Services

The Medical School will receive $4 million during the next four years from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to support the U-M’s new program in bioinformatics. This interdisciplinary program will offer graduate education and support research in the emerging scientific field of bioinformatics, one of the areas highlighted in the Life Sciences Initiative.

Bioinformatics merges recent advances in molecular biology and genetics with advanced computer science technology. The goal is increased understanding of the complex web of interactions linking the individual components of a living cell to the integrated behavior of the entire organism.

“The Human Genome Project and advances in molecular biology have generated a flood of new data about individual components of cells,” says Medical School Dean Allen S. Lichter. “Yet we know very little about how all these parts work together to create a living organism. HHMI funding will help us obtain the computer technology and expertise we need to develop the next generation of bioinformatics tools and educate tomorrow’s scholars in this important new discipline.”

According to Michael A. Savageau, professor of microbiology and immunology and director of the bioinformatics program, the HHMI grant will be used to recruit four new junior faculty members and hire technical support staff for a new Bioinformatics Core Facility under construction in the Medical School. “The HHMI award also will help fund pilot research projects in which bioinformatics faculty and graduate students will work closely with other U-M investigators to develop a deeper understanding of living systems and new applications for this technology,” he says.

“This major grant from HHMI complements a substantial investment made by the U-M Health System to develop the U-M’s educational and research capabilities,” said Gilbert S. Omenn, executive vice president for medical affairs. “As part of our extensive Life Sciences Initiative, we want to help shape the future directions of concepts, modeling and analysis in bioinformatics and biocomplexity. We also want to empower our scientists to use cutting-edge techniques for current applications in genomics, proteomics, public health genetics and microbial pathogenesis.”

Funded by the Health System, renovation has begun on a 5,000-square-foot area in the Medical School to be equipped with advanced computer hardware, software and network support. The area will include five research laboratories for new bioinformatics faculty and a 500-square-foot Bioinformatics Core Facility with office space and support staff to assist faculty and graduate students who use the facility.

Educational components of the new program already are under way—including a seminar series and an introductory course in bioinformatics offered for the first time in fall 1999. Interdisciplinary Ph.D. and master’s degree programs in bioinformatics are under development.

The Medical School is one of 41 medical schools selected this year to receive a Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant for biomedical research support. HHMI is a medical research organization whose principal purpose is the conduct of biomedical research. It employs scientists in cell biology, genetics, immunology, neuroscience and structural biology. More than 320 Hughes investigators, including seven in the Medical School, conduct medical research in HHMI laboratories at 71 medical centers and universities nationwide.