Oct. 29, 2008

Cornell launches Center for Comparative and Population Genomics

With advancements in science, technology and computers, private citizens can now swab cells from their cheeks and send them to labs to have their genomes analyzed for clues to their ancestry and their risk of developing inherited diseases.

But understanding genome variation -- how genomes vary between organisms -- also has far-reaching implications for the study of basic biology. These range from how evolution occurs to how genes interact with the environment to determine organisms' appearance and behavior. Applications encompass agricultural improvements, pharmaceutical discovery and production, and medical applications and diagnostics.

To highlight the growing importance of the study of genome variation and Cornell's expertise in the field, the university has launched the Cornell Center for Comparative and Population Genomics.

The center will unify Cornell's comparative and population genomics proficiency that is spread across some 15 departments in four colleges. Cornell's particular expertise lies in developing cutting-edge analytical methods to deepen understanding about biological function, evolutionary history, and medical and analytical diagnostics. These methods may be universally applied to study any organism -- from humans, mice and insects to rice, yeast and microbes -- which makes centralizing Cornell's leadership in these areas even more important.

"The new center strengthens the level of collaboration and communication across campus, and it strengthens access to our expertise," said Chip Aquadro, professor of molecular biology and genetics and a center co-director with Andrew Clark, also a professor of molecular biology and genetics. "This center has potential for significant impact across campus, and we take that responsibility very seriously."

In addition to biology and medicine, the study of genome variation also raises questions in the fields of law, social sciences and ethics, such as how personalized medicine will influence medical policies and insurance, Aquadro noted.

"This center represents a commitment to developing a comprehensive understanding of human behavior, one that appreciates the importance of genes, environment and the interaction between the two," said Cornell Interim Provost David Harris, who played a key role in establishing the center.

Professor Carlos Bustamante and assistant professor Adam Siepel, both in the Department of Biological Statistics and Computational Biology, will serve as associate directors.

The four founding directors have contributed to the initial annotation of the genomes of the human, Drosophila , macaque (rhesus monkey), dog and cow, among many other breakthroughs.

"The center, with its progressive and visionary leadership team, will address critical scientific issues and provide unique insights that will benefit the human condition on issues ranging from agriculture to medicine," said Cornell Vice Provost for the Life Sciences Stephen Kresovich.

Some of the center's key goals include fostering research among geneticists across many of Cornell's colleges as well as collaborations with other life, physical and social scientists on Cornell's Ithaca, New York City and Doha, Qatar, campuses; enhancing recruitment and retention of faculty to Cornell; attracting major new projects and grants; expanding analytical, computational and statistical resources needed for whole-genome analyses; and providing leadership in developing new education programs at all levels on campus.

The center was founded with the support of former Cornell Provost Biddy Martin, Harris, Kresovich as well as Peter Lepage, Susan Henry and Michael Kotlikoff, deans of the Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Veterinary Medicine, respectively.