Spectacular advances in experimental molecular biology led to the determination of the human genome sequence. But data mining of the full implication of the sequence was made possible because of advances in a new field called bioinformatics. Operating at the intersection of computer science, statistics and genomics, bioinformatics enables the Human Genome Project and thousands of other biotechnology projects in labs around the world to make sense of the massive amount of data they generate.

“Managing information from 34,000 sequenced clones to produce the final 2.7 million base pair sequences in humans represents a scientific achievement comparable to the gene sequencing techniques themselves. Bioinformatics shaves years off the discovery process,” says Dr. Bruce Weir, Reynolds Professor of Statistics and Genetics, and director of NC State’s new Bioinformatics Research Center (BRC). The center opened this year on NC State’s Centennial Campus, adjacent to the Genome Research Laboratory, the Fungal Genomics Laboratory, the Forest Biotechnology Laboratory and other genomics research programs.

Key to the center is the involvement and training of graduate students. Newsweek magazine (April 30, 2000) reports an estimate that “the bioinformatics industry will need 20,000 highly trained workers by 2005—a new brand of super-geek who understands the complex tongues of biology, statistics and computer science.” Because of the concentration of agriculture and medical research companies in the Triangle, hiring is especially competitive here.

With the largest bioinformatics degree program in the country, NC State is one of the world’s major training centers for bioinformaticians. “Our students are being snapped up by industry as fast as we can train them,” says Weir. NC State’s Department of Statistics also offers a Summer Institute in Statistical Genetics, funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The Summer Institute is open to students worldwide and is taught by an internationally distinguished faculty from academia and industry.

Weir also serves as the director of the university’s Statistical and Quantitative Genetics Research Program. Industry funding for this program has doubled during the past five years. A $6 million grant from NIH in January marked the 42nd year of continuous NIH funding for NC State research in statistical and quantitative genetics, and brings total NIH funding for the program to more than $25 million. “It’s a remarkable show of confidence by NIH in the excellence of our statistics and genetics faculty,” says Chancellor Marye Anne Fox. “Because of world-class published research, NC State’s bioinformatics program was ready when DNA research became the genome revolution.”

As both a service and educational strategy, the BRC maintains an open invitation to faculty and industry researchers to bring bioinformatics problems to the group’s coffee break any day at 10 a.m. “It’s a very interesting way to involve students in the creative process as we toss around ideas for solutions,” says graduate student Errol Strain, working in the BRC under a training grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

The 50 faculty, staff and students at the BRC perform basic research and interact with producers of data, both on and off campus. The mission of the center is to develop and implement methods for the management and interpretation of genomic data—with an emphasis on agriculture, forestry and veterinary medicine. By working closely with other groups at NC State, and with research organizations and companies in the Research Triangle area and beyond, the BRC plays a key role in ensuring that the genome revolution translates into benefits for the citizens of North Carolina.

For more information, please visit http://bioinformatics.ncsu.edu/