Representatives from business, government, and the local education community gathered on Thursday, Dec. 2, for the formal opening of the Whitehead/MIT Center for Genome Research.
The new Center, funded by a five-year, $45 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, will develop maps of the human and mouse genomes to speed the search for human disease genes.
Following introductory remarks by former Senator Paul Tsongas, chairman of the Whitehead board of directors, and Dr. Gerald Fink, director of the Whitehead Institute, Dr. Eric Lander described the goals of the Center within the framework of the international effort to decipher the entire human genetic code. Dr. Lander is director of the Whitehead/MIT Center for Genome Research, a member of the Whitehead Institute, and professor of biology at MIT.
"Imagine that this view of the earth is comparable in scale to the human genome-the complete set of genetic instructions that make up a human being," Dr. Lander said referring to a photograph of the earth from space.
"Then the task of finding the single mistake responsible for a disease like cystic fibrosis can be broken down in the following way: first, scientists have to locate the general region of the genome containing the disease gene-an area comparable to this satellite photo of Michigan and Illinois. Then they search for markers close to the gene-the appropriate comparison would be narrowing the search to the City of Chicago.
"The gene itself might be thought of as a marina along the shores of Lake Michigan," Dr. Lander added. "In this scale, the actual mistake in the genome responsible for the genetic disease would be comparable to a single hand resting on a blanket in the grass on the banks of the marina."
The goal of the Whitehead/MIT Center for Genome Research, Dr. Lander explained, is to build genetic maps that will increase the speed and efficiency of the search process.
Abnormal genes have been directly implicated in more than 3,000 human diseases; in addition, genetic variations are known to influence the development of heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's disease and diabetes. Information and tools generated by the Whitehead/MIT Center will pave the way for new strategies in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of these diseases.
"I believe that the Human Genome Project is the single, most exciting organized science project ever undertaken," Dr. Lander said. "By understanding the genetic variations that make us different, we'll gain a basic understanding of the common mechanisms at work in all of us."
Following Dr. Lander's talk guests toured the new facility. At four separate stations, Genome Center staff demonstrated new robotics technology, described the construction of genetic and physical maps, and explored the integration of computers at the cutting edge of molecular biology and medicine.
At one station, two teachers from Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School described the impact of the Whitehead teacher education programs on their classrooms. The Whitehead/MIT Center for Genome Research plays an active role in all Whitehead Institute outreach activities. The teachers displayed brightly colored paper constructions created by their students to explore basic strategies of gene mapping.
A version of this article appeared in the December 8, 1993 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 17).