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Genomic research promises such a vast amount of information that scenarios from the fundamental to the far-fetched now share plausibility.

Consider this worst-case, futuristic plot line: A rogue nation decides to launch an all-out offensive against the United States. Using genetically altered anthrax, it wipes out most of the East Coast in a few weeks. Scientists, unable to understand what has been unleashed, die horribly with everyone else before they’re able to diagnose the microscopic organisms transforming the United States into the killing fields of the Western Hemisphere.

An outdated Cold War fantasy, you say? Something out of Kubrick or LeCarré?

Your federal government doesn’t think so. Nor does a host of well-funded research institutes and pharmaceutical companies intently compiling data in the relatively new field of genomics, the study of the total set of genes characteristic to each organism.

Weir studies unprecedented amounts of data. Exploring the fundamental information made available by such research is the purview of Dr. Bruce Weir, William Neal Reynolds Professor of Statistics and Genetics at North Carolina State University. Weir approaches genomics mostly from a theoretical base.

“The ability to collect information at the level of the whole genome, instead of at individual genes, is producing amounts of data unprecedented in biology,” Weir says. “Managing and interpreting these data have emerged as the major new discipline of bioinformatics.

“Bioinformatics combines biology with statistics and computer science to analyze and manage the massive amounts of data involved in genomic science,” he explains. “Functional genomics applies new technologies to the study of gene expression and structure; it promises insights into the way these complex genomic systems work.”

Filling the need for bioinformatics expertise

Weir now stands poised with a genomics-related proposal: that N.C. State grant doctoral and master’s degrees in bioinformatics. He also intends to establish an N.C. State-based center in bioinformatics to focus the research and teach genomic science’s quantitative aspects.

Says Weir in the polished accent that reveals his New Zealand birth but not his U.S. citizenship, “The genomic revolution will change all aspects of human life and already has changed the face of medicine and agriculture.”

Weir, who heads the university’s Statistical and Quantitative Genetics Research Program, recently saw his proposal to plan a center in bioinformatics, which he will direct, approved by the University of North Carolina’s General Administration. He likewise anticipates approval for the establishment of the bioinformatics center, especially in light of strong university-level administrative support.

Indeed, Weir is not the only one in scientific circles with an acute interest in genomics. Ever since Francis Crick and James Watson won the Nobel Prize in 1962 for establishing DNA’s molecular structure, genomics research has accelerated faster than mitosis in lab rats.

As government and private-sector scientists race toward the next goal in genetic information gathering — mapping all 80,000 human genes — bioinformatics’ increasingly comprehensive data bases are sought eagerly by deep-pocketed, multinational agricultural, chemical and pharmaceutical companies.

This is a fact that does not escape Weir. The lightning pace of genomic research has created a growing demand for mathematicians and scientists who can generate, manage and analyze biological information, he says.

So important is the fledgling science, it might well be classified as essential to national defense.

Using knowledge of genomes, a recent CNN Interactive report said, scientists can map the genetic makeup of every potential bioterrorism agent and quickly identify its hybrids.

That’s particularly important since, according to another CNN report, a top U.S. researcher claims that scientists in the former Soviet Union genetically engineered anthrax to resist current U.S. vaccines.

Another, perhaps more immediate application of genetic research lies in criminal investigation.

First steps: A forensics course on the Internet

Weir’s expertise in population genetics and statistical methods qualified him to testify at the notorious O.J. Simpson criminal trial. After that trial, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which last fall activated its new Combined DNA Index System, required all forensic scientists to train in statistical genetics.

After the FBI mandate, Weir and Sandy Newville, of N.C. State University’s Office of Instructional Telecommunications, created graduate-level Statistics 610, a World Wide Web-based course to help train forensic scientists and law enforcement officials nationwide in more accurate DNA statistics interpretation. In some ways, the course was a creation of convenience, since supplying the required training meant Weir had to barnstorm the countryside, teaching three-day short courses, eating up valuable research time in travel.

The course’s 44 students, working from CD-ROMs with voiceovers of Weir’s lectures, participate in Internet class discussions and e-mail assignments. That’s good, Weir says, since Internet discussions mean everyone in class must participate, unlike standard classroom interactions in which some students may lag.

Searching for pattern and meaning

Weir has created a Web-based statistics course. Weir hopes that the class will segue into his proposed Web-based degree program in bioinformatics, and a center from which to coordinate it seems to be near realization.

About 125 N.C. State faculty in agricultural sciences, veterinary medicine, forestry, statistics, chemistry, math and life sciences already have incorporated genomic research into their programs. The proposed N.C. State degree program’s focus on bioinformatics and functional genomics from the above areas and from computer science would differentiate it from anything now offered in North Carolina.

“This new program will take advantage of this breadth of faculty involvement and strengthen the infrastructure needed for an interdisciplinary approach, as well as capitalizing on the intellectual and economic development potential of our Research Triangle Park and Centennial Campus ties,” says Weir.

Administered mainly by N.C. State’s College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, the center’s core faculty would be drawn from the statistics department.

Weir envisions the center as part of a broader joint activity in genomic science with the colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Engineering, Forest Resources, Physical and Mathematical Sciences and Veterinary Medicine.

He sees the center concerned both with genomic data management and with “drawing inferences from these data for the advancement of knowledge and the welfare of mankind.”

“These topics,” Weir says, “all have an element of searching for pattern and meaning in genomic data. They all require the development of new statistical methods of analysis.”

Within those patterns of meaning lie great promises. The topics range from the varietal protection of plants to reconstruction of evolutionary history to forensic identification to genes affecting human disease. Any one of these might even contribute knowledge to help detect mutated strands of anthrax or other pathogens.