Malaria Genome Project Ready to Roll

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Science  20 Dec 1996:
Vol. 274, Issue 5295, pp. 1999
DOI: 10.1126/science.274.5295.1999a

Malaria, estimated to cause more than 1 million deaths a year, will be coming under renewed attack by molecular biologists, who have just won support for an international project to sequence the entire genome of the malaria parasite. Scientists attempting to decipher the genetic code of the deadly strain Plasmodium falciparum recently reported progress in solving technical issues, which helped win funding.

The largest pledge comes from the U.S. Department of Defense's (DOD's) Military Infectious Disease Research Program. Its director, Colonel William Bancroft, confirms that his office plans to spend $8 million to sequence falciparum over the next 5 years. A second major funder is Britain's Wellcome Trust, although its commitment hasn't been announced as yet. Others include the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) ($1 million) and the U.S. Burroughs Wellcome Fund ($4 million).

The plan would support sequencing at the Sanger Centre near Cambridge, England, and at The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Other labs in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia will help.

Would-be sequencers of falciparum have been frustrated since the 1980s because of the daunting size of its genome (30 million base pairs, more than twice the size of yeast, the largest genome sequenced to date), and because it has proved difficult to clone accurately into the bacterial vectors used in sequencing machines. But earlier this month, scientists from the Sanger Centre and TIGR reported that they are finding ways around these problems. The results were “exciting,” according to Naval Medical Research Institute malaria researcher Stephen Hoffman, who says the Sanger team has now sequenced 20,000 bases of the parasite's chromosome 3 (one of 14 chromosomes). And DOD's Bancroft says: “We're optimistic that things are going to start rolling now.” NIH's Michael Gottlieb, who organized the meeting, confirms that researchers are optimistic about solving the cloning problem.

The research teams are still working out details of the collaboration, such as when and how to release DNA data. They plan to meet again 6 months from now in Cambridge, England.

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