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15 Years of IGB: Centers of the Institute

BY Shelby Lawson

The Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology has hosted numerous research centers over the years, fostering collaboration between researchers at the IGB and external partners, including those of academic, governmental, and industrial nature. The IGB’s centers often work together with multiple institutions and companies, producing interdisciplinary research that is then translated into real-world solutions. Here, we discuss the centers both past and current that the IGB has hosted over the last 15 years.

The Big Data to Knowledge Center of Excellence
The human genome is massive, totaling about 3 billion nucleotides long. Though our sequencing technology has advanced considerably in recent years, it still falls short in its capability to analyze such large quantities of genomic data quickly and accurately. The need for an advanced platform that could generate, interpret, and apply genomic data spawned the creation of BD2K, established in 2016 with funding from NIH. The focus of this center was to get computer software up to the scale of genomic data, and create a platform with an intuitive user interface, integrated analytical methods involving data mining and machine learning, and an open access design such that it be a “knowledge network” of community genomic data sets. The platform, called The Knowledge Engine for Genomics, contained data for not just human genomics, but animals and plants as well, which were used to create patient-specific treatments for disease, modify microbes for agriculture and human health, and improve efficiency of plant and animal agriculture.

Center of Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation
The human population is expected to reach 8 billion by 2023, and with this population growth comes the need for more efficient agriculture to grow enough food, and more sustainable sources of fuel to power the world. To help with this problem, CABBI was established in 2017 with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy as part of a widescale collaboration with multiple universities across the county. CABBI seeks to create a new generation of bioenergy crops, biofuels, and bioproducts, that are sustainable, resilient, and cost-effective. The crops that are developed by researchers at CABBI can produce valuable chemicals such as biodiesel, organic acids, and alcohol, that work to reduce use of fossil fuels and dependence on non-sustainable sources for these chemicals. The crops are also engineering to produce higher yields, helping to sustainably feed both people and livestock.

The Center for Nutrition, Learning, and Memory
Diets vary tremendously across the human population and throughout our lives, yet the effects that nutrition has on our brain function and development are still unclear. This was the inspiration for CNLM, established in 2011 in partnership with Abbott Nutrition, as the first interdisciplinary center for studying the impact of nutrition on brain cognition. Using leading-edge brain imaging and supercomputing technologies, CNLM researchers explored the mechanisms underlying nutritional enhancement of learning and memory, and used this data to create reliable tests for measuring how learning and memory changed depending on nutrition and age. CNLM also hosted an annual research competition that awarded novel multi-disciplinary research on the intersection between nutrition and cognition.  

Center for Genomic Diagnostics
Methods for testing for some diseases in humans can be invasive, expensive, and time consuming. Furthermore, treatments for certain diseases, like cancer, often only work for some patients. Ideally, there would be a way to reliably test for biomarkers of disease and create patient-specific treatments based on the results. This is where the CGD comes in. Originally the Omics Nanotechnology for Cancer Precision Medicine theme, the CGD grew out of this theme through a partnership with the Grainer College of Engineering in 2020. This center is currently developing non-invasive genomic “liquid biopsies” which measure micro-RNAs in the blood of patients, allowing for quick, easy, and reliable testing for certain diseases. Their goal is to make this test easy to take at home, such that a patient can use a finger stick to collect a drop of blood, put it in a cartridge, and send it in the mail to be analyzed by a lab. The CGD also hopes to use blood-based diagnostics of biomarkers to create more individualized treatments for patients based on their needs. Recently CGD has developed a technique called Photonic Resonator Interferometric Scattering Microscopy, which can be used to count virus loads in real time at a low cost. The center is working to integrate PRISM technology with other virus testing, like that for COVID-19, to create rapid diagnostic tests to monitor viral load in patients with these diseases.

Genome Scale Engineering Center
In recent years, metabolic engineering involving microorganisms has been used to produce much of the biofuels and chemicals that we use. Usually, these efforts focus on baker’s yeast or other model organisms. Increasing the diversity of microorganisms we use can offer advantages for biomanufacturing and may even lead to discovery of new compounds. However, the time and effort needed to explore and manipulate the genes of new models microorganisms is extensive. The goal of GSE, created in 2018 with funding from the Department of Energy, is to develop genome scale engineering tools that allow for rapid testing of microorganisms for new industrial compounds. By integrating genomic engineering tools with metabolic analyses and computational modeling, the center will accelerate the “design-build-test” cycle of microorganism testing, and engineer emerging yeast models to produce valuable fuels and chemicals as part of DOE’s renewable energy mission.

Catherine and Don Kleinmuntz Center for Genomics in Business and Society
The Kleinmuntz Center was established in 2019 by Catherine and Don Kleinmuntz as an intersection between business and science. The center provides opportunities for scientists to engage with businesses and develop their research into something both innovative and commercial. The Kleinmuntz center hosts the Young Innovator Program yearly, through which a cohort of graduate students learn about professional development, and design a project to create something to provide economic and social impact, such as new healthcare or industrial products. The center also offers the Mikashi Awards, which provides funding for projects at the IGB that are innovative and marketable.


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