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NIH chooses Princeton as home for new research center

By Steven Schultz

Princeton NJ -- The National Institutes of Health has selected Princeton as the home for a new research center devoted to using advanced computational methods to investigate complex biological systems.

The grant will provide $3 million in funding in the first year and is expected to total $14.8 million over five years. The multidisciplinary initiative, called the Center for Quantitative Biology, will be headed by David Botstein, director of the University's Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics.

From left, Jim Broach and David Botstein are serving as co-principal investigators on a National Institutes of Health grant that will provide $3 million in funding in the first year and is expected to total $14.8 million over five years. The grant will establish a new research center at Princeton devoted to using advanced computational methods to investigate complex biological systems.

The center will focus on several fundamental research projects having to do with the early development of organisms, cell-to-cell communication and the interaction of viruses with their host cells. It also will pursue projects to aid science education in local schools. In addition, Botstein noted that the grant will provide ''running support'' for the broad mission of the genomics institute and help create critical infrastructure needed for analyzing complex biological questions.

''The grant goes a very long way to making much of our work possible,'' said Botstein. ''It is not just a grant for the investigators named in the proposal. We intend for this center to raise the boats of all the researchers at Princeton who are interested in quantitative biology.''

Serving as co-principal investigator with Botstein will be Jim Broach, a professor of molecular biology. Botstein and Broach, along with molecular biology professors Eric Wieschaus and Tom Shenk, will lead subprojects. The center involves a total of 22 faculty members from five departments, plus postdoctoral fellows and technical staff members.

''This grant will allow our scientists to pursue some of the most pressing and fundamental questions in biology,'' said President Tilghman, who was the founding director of the Lewis-Sigler Institute. ''The decision by the NIH to select Princeton reflects not only the high quality and vital nature of the work at our genomics institute, but also the terrific leadership that David Botstein has brought to the program.''

The Princeton center is the fifth that the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, part of the NIH, has created as part of a program called Centers of Excellence in Complex Biomedical Systems Research. The other four centers are at the University of Washington Friday Harbor Laboratories, Case Western Reserve University, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Botstein said the grant would fund the creation of three important technological resources for biologists on campus:

• A microarray fabrication facility. Microarrays are small, computer-chip-like devices that allow scientists to observe the activity of thousands of genes simultaneously. Pioneered by Botstein and colleagues at Stanford University, the technology has entered widespread use, but remains expensive. A single microarray might cost $500 from a commercial manufacturer and a typical, high-quality experiment might require 50 of them, Botstein said. ''This effectively allows us to make our own microarrays at a fraction of the cost,'' said Botstein.

Computing resources. The grant will fund the development of a database to organize and analyze the enormous amount of data provided by microarrays and other experimental techniques. It also will pay for the construction of a ''display wall'' -- a wall-sized, high-resolution computer screen pioneered by researchers in Princeton's computer science department -- in the Icahn Laboratory. The wall will allow scientists to see large-scale patterns or minute details in their data simply by walking closer to or farther from the screen.

Imaging technology. The grant also will fund a microscope facility devoted to ''real-time fluorescence microscopy,'' a cutting-edge method for seeing neurons and other cells as they function, an area of research led by molecular biology and physics professor David Tank. The facility will be staffed with expert technicians. ''At this point, in order to get work like that done, you have to have a collaborator like Tank himself and he's not infinitely stretchable,'' said Botstein. ''So this is the next step.''

The combination of these resources will play a critical role in shaping a new approach to teaching both graduate and undergraduate students, Botstein said. Through the new center, students will be exposed to the kind of highly quantitative, multidisciplinary research that represents the future of biology, he said.