SITE VISIT: Untangling What Genes Do

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Science  27 Aug 1999:
Vol. 285, Issue 5432, pp. 1323
DOI: 10.1126/science.285.5432.1323d

As raw genetic code for everything from slime molds to people pours out from sequencing labs around the world, researchers are scrambling to figure out the role of various snippets of DNA in the cells of living organisms. A major station on the Web for doing this—particularly for microbes, with the largest number of completely sequenced genomes so far—is a site called WIT, which stands simply for What Is There?

Based at Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago, the site has as its core nearly 3000 diagrams, rather like circuit board wiring designs, showing metabolic pathways—such as glycolysis or DNA replication. Visitors can input a DNA sequence and find out what pathways it might tie into, in both the organism it came from and in others. Or they can ask a more general question, such as “How is isoleucine produced in Escherichia coli?” The 39 genomes right now are mostly prokaryotes; the main users, says WIT designer Ross Overbeek, are industrial scientists engineering bacteria to perform such tasks as eating chemical waste. But more eukaryotic data—from plants and humans, for example—will be added eventually.

WIT is undergoing a transformation, as Overbeek has moved from Argonne to a company called Integrated Genomics, which plans to market a souped-up version of the database stocked with proprietary genome data. But the company expects to work with Argonne to maintain a free site, too. “There will be a public site one way or the other,” Overbeek promises.

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