FROM THE ARCHIVES: July 23, 2002
Researchers Get Grants To Apply Gene Technology


The Department of Energy is putting $103 million over the next five years toward using genomics technology to address energy production, environmental cleanup and global warming.

The research grants to 26 U.S. research institutions are part of a trend to use fast-accumulating genetic know-how to solve tough problems in other fields. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham planned to make the announcement of the grants Tuesday at DOE headquarters in Washington.

The effort aims to detail the biological workings of several types of bacteria, knowledge that could help harness the tiny but ubiquitous organisms to produce energy or to recycle the greenhouse gases that are warming the planet.

Mr. Abraham said the projects could "make a significant contribution to the president's policy on climate change." The Bush administration has rejected U.S. involvement in international accords to place limits on greenhouse-gas emissions. It has instead called for investment in clean cars and other efficiency improvements, as well as more research on global climate change.

Understanding the environmental role of microorganisms is viewed as a first step toward harnessing them. Dave Thomassen, a DOE manager, said "microbes already do everything that we would like to be able to do," including devouring oil and other pollutants.

Now that DNA-sequencing projects have completed genetic maps for human beings and many types of bacteria, scientists are trying to understand how the pieces work together, a discipline known as "systems biology."

"The idea is to push the results that came out of genomics towards how cells are built and how they interact with their environment," said George Church , a researcher at Harvard University Medical School who leads a group that received a $15 million grant. Among the organisms to be studied are oceangoing algae that account for about 40% of the planet's light-to-energy photosynthetic activity.