Not too long ago, deconstructing and analyzing DNA codes took scientists several years and enough chemistry and computer hardware to fill the entire floor of a building. Now, a genetic sequencer the size of a washing machine can do the work in a couple of days.
Thanks to a $750,000 grant from the Cullen Foundation awarded to the University of Houston’s Institute for Molecular Design (IMD), researchers will be among the first in the region to use this cutting-edge device.
Headed by B. Montgomery Pettitt, Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished Professor in Chemistry, professor of computer science, physics, biology and biochemistry, and associate dean of research for the UH College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, the IMD also recently received a $500,000 grant from the M.D. Anderson Foundation for construction and build-out costs associated with the Science & Engineering Research and Classroom Complex (SERCC).
A complex of three main structures, SERCC includes a five-story laboratory building with more than 150,000 square feet that will accommodate an estimated 40 research labs designed to support interaction.
Among the building’s features are labs opening up to other labs with few walls to isolate them, as well as a dedicated, full-service “clean room” with a non-vibration floor, static-free environment and special air filters to remove virtually all dust particles.
These new capabilities will allow for more collaborative, cross-disciplinary research among UH faculty in addition to benefiting local academic and industry partners who participate in the university’s research efforts.
Set to arrive by December, the $500,000 DNA sequencer made possible by the Cullen Foundation grant will help make UH a major player in genetic science by allowing the analysis not only of whole organisms but also of sampling with many organisms mixed together.
“An organism’s genome can contain the equivalent of millions of pages of data,” Pettitt said. “Breaking up the astonishingly complex genome into smaller chunks for study and then piecing it back together is an arduous task, but this high-powered sequencer can perform large, rapid scans of genetic material. Scientists can have the initial data in couple of days with this technology as opposed to years.”
The sequencer will be only the second installation of its kind in Houston. There are plans for the UH sequencer to be used for stem cell research, Pettitt said.
Whether it’s zeroing in on the slightest hint of virus or bacteria from a mouth swab or constructing an ecological profile of an area by studying remnant DNA molecules that could be millions of years old to see what was there so long ago, the sequencers will help researchers in a number of groundbreaking endeavors.
It also will help scientists and students engaged in synthetic biology – the creation of new functions and even life forms with synthesized genes.
“Although life forms from scratch are still a ways off, the sequencer opens up new possibilities in genetic analysis that can lead to a profound change in how we do biological science,” Pettitt said.
The remaining $250,000 from the Cullen Foundation gift will be used to finish outfitting research labs in SERCC. Similarly, the funds from the M.D. Anderson Foundation grant will be used to build out space on this research facility’s fourth floor.
The grant will directly impact the completion of lab space to be used by the IMD, which is currently planned to be housed on the fourth floor of SERCC, allowing for more rapid and efficient collaboration to help advance the IMD’s research most effectively.