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£1.65M investment establishes epigenomics sequencing facility at the Babraham Institute

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13 May 2009

The Babraham Institute announces a new state-of-the-art genome sequencing facility, following a major investment of £1.65M from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Medical Research Council (MRC) in partnership with the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Trophoblast Research. This new ‘high throughput’ facility will enable researchers to more rapidly and cheaply mine the genome for insights into how and why we get diseases, how environmental factors can modify the genome and potentially unlock the processes governing healthier ageing.

This facility is also a partner in a new Genetic Research Hub in the East of England, funded by the MRC, with the University of Cambridge, the EMBL European Bioinformatics Institute, the NIHR Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre and next-generation sequencing technology companies. The MRC is investing over £7M to support fundamental genetics research by creating three high-throughput sequencing (HTS) hubs in Scotland, the North of England and the East of England. This initiative will provide scientists across the country with access to cutting-edge resources for DNA sequencing and enable the UK to retain its world-leading standing in DNA research.

The next post-genomic challenge is unravelling how genes choreograph human development. Most cells in an individual have the same genetic material yet behave differently depending on where they are in the body. Epigenetic regulation is a further layer of control on top of the DNA sequence, increasing the developmental complexity that is possible from the same building blocks - the genes. Breakthroughs in epigenetics are changing our understanding of cancer, obesity and ageing.

Babraham’s new facility will play a pivotal role defining the epigenetic basis of healthy ageing and certain diseases, illuminating how our actions and lifestyles today can have a detrimental or beneficial impact at a genetic level, on the health of future generations. This powerful sequencing system can identify previously undetectable minute differences between DNA samples, for example pinpointing chemical modifications to just one base pair – the genetic needle in a haystack of chromosomal information.

Professor Wolf Reik, Associate Director at the Babraham Institute and Professor of Epigenetics at the University of Cambridge said, "This facility and the partnership with the MRC Hub is a huge boost to our science strengths in epigenetics and chromatin research, cell signalling, and immunology, and their applications in biomedicine. In particular, we will be able to get detailed insights into how the genome and the chromosomes are modified and dynamically arranged within the cell nucleus so that many thousands of genes can be co-ordinately regulated during development and in the adult organism."

He explained, "The ability to unravel whole epigenomes during normal development and healthy ageing, and to understand how epigenomes are modified by the environment and nutritional factors, is hugely exciting. Altered regulation of the epigenome is likely to underlie many common human diseases, including diabetes or cancer. Unlocking the principles of epigenome reprogramming is key to being able to harness the promises of regenerative medicine and stem cell therapy."

He added, "This is an excellent example of how joint BBSRC and MRC investment in epigenetics research at the Babraham Institute, combined with our proactive involvement with spin out companies, such as CellCentric, in the development of new technologies, has provided the leverage to enter into partnership with MRC’s new regional hub."

With today’s technology, large amounts of data will be generated in relatively short periods of time. "The analysis of epigenomes on a large scale presents new challenges and career opportunities for computational biologists, with whom we are beginning to engage in productive collaborations", explained Professor Reik.

"As an integral partner in the recently awarded MRC Sequencing Hub, other HTS systems from our partners are now added to our capability, hence increasing the sequencing power and diversity of approaches that we will be able to use. We look forward to working in close partnership with Professors John Todd and Steven Oliver at the University of Cambridge and are delighted that this award strengthens further our strategic relationship with Professor Graham Burton of the Centre for Trophoblast Research."

ENDS

Notes to editors

Epigenetics

We all get two copies of every gene, one from our mother and one from our father. In many cases both copies are used or ‘expressed’, however it is becoming clear that for some genes either the mother’s or the father’s version is used preferentially, a phenomenon known as genomic imprinting. Specific chemical modifications to the DNA, such as methylation, appear to give the chromosomes a "memory" as to their parental origin. These ‘epigenetic’ imprints, from the Greek meaning ‘on top of’, modify the structure of the DNA but not its sequence. In addition to parental modifications, it is thought that epigenetic changes may also arise in response to environmental factors, enabling an organism's genes to adapt and respond differently, even though the gene sequence does not change.

About the Babraham Institute

The Babraham Institute is a charitable organisation devoted to biomedical research and is an institute of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). The Institute’s research is focused on understanding the biological events that underlie the normal functions of cells and on how their failure or abnormality may lead to disease. As such, Institute scientists are striving to find cures for conditions where there is currently no treatment or where the existing treatment is not fully effective or causes serious side effects. The latest technologies are being used to study the basis of conditions such as neurodegenerative disorders, birth defects, cancer and diseases of the immune and cardiovascular systems. With a strategic focus on ‘healthy ageing’, novel approaches for tackling chronic diseases and public health concerns like obesity are being discovered. The Institute’s innovative research is commercialised through Babraham Bioscience Technologies (BBT) Ltd, which also manages Babraham’s vibrant Bioincubator on the Babraham Research Campus, six miles south-east of Cambridge. Website: www.babraham.ac.uk

The Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) facility at Babraham, currently run by Group Leader Dr Cameron Osborne, has been made possible through a joint investment from BBSRC, the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Trophoblast Research, and an MRC collaboration grant between Babraham researchers Peter Fraser, Gavin Kelsey, Patrick Varga-Weisz and Wolf Reik with Anne Ferguson-Smith of the University of Cambridge, totalling over £1.65M. The investment at Babraham has provided two Illumina Solexa Genome Analyzer 2 instruments, tools to analyse complicated datasets, data mapping and storage pipelines, as well as bioinformatics and computational biology support to establish a cutting edge next generation sequencing facility centred on Epigenomics that will benefit the Cambridge biomedical community.

About BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £450M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. BBSRC carries out its mission by funding internationally competitive research, providing training in the biosciences, fostering opportunities for knowledge transfer and innovation and promoting interaction with the public and other stakeholders on issues of scientific interest in universities, centres and institutes.

The Babraham Institute, Institute for Animal Health, Institute of Food Research, John Innes Centre and Rothamsted Research are Institutes of BBSRC. The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.

About MRC

The Medical Research Council is dedicated to improving human health through excellent science. It invests on behalf of the UK taxpayer. Its work ranges from molecular level science to public health research, carried out in universities, hospitals and a network of its own units and institutes. The MRC liaises with the Health Departments, the National Health Service and industry to take account of the public’s needs. The results have led to some of the most significant discoveries in medical science and benefited the health and wealth of millions of people in the UK and around the world. www.mrc.ac.uk

The MRC’s £7M investment was made by its Strategy Board in response to increasing numbers of grant applications requiring high-throughput sequencing. Having consulted widely with scientists, the Board called for proposals for regional hubs as this best met the needs of scientists and ensured the most optimal use of MRC funds across the genetics research community. John Jeans, MRC Chief Operating Officer said, "Inviting regional applications has generated innovative partnerships between academic institutions, as well as engagement with industry, the NHS and Regional Genetics Services. This initiative will engender innovative ways of working and enable new and exciting discoveries. We hope the hubs will allow scientists to ask increasingly precise questions about diseases, and gather answers that were undreamt of only a decade ago."

About University of Cambridge

The University of Cambridge will host the Eastern Sequencing and Informatics Hub, at the Cambridge Biomedical Campus, Addenbrooke’s Hospital. Professor John Todd, a Principal Investigator at the hub said, "The development of even faster and less expensive ways of decoding genetic material and information, so called high throughput sequencing, is transforming our understanding of how organisms work, from bacteria to humans, and how certain diseases are strongly inherited. Only a few years ago, it took an international consortium many years of effort to produce a first draft of the human genome sequence, but now it will be possible for the proposed hub in Cambridge, the Eastern Sequence and Informatics Hub (EASIH), to re-sequence 100 human genomes in a year."

About the Centre for Trophoblast Research

The Centre for Trophoblast Research is an exciting new inter-departmental initiative that aims to promote the study of placental biology, with special reference to the trophoblast, both within and outside Cambridge. The centre, which draws together researchers from Babraham, The Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience, The Gurdon Institute and Addenbrookes Hospital, was officially launched in July 2008 and aims to facilitate interactions and collaborations between established researchers, both nationally and internationally. The Centre aims to promote research and teaching in placental biology and the developmental origins of the trophoblast within the University of Cambridge and affiliated institutes through Next Generation Research Fellowships, Graduate Studentships, seminars, workshops, and infrastructural support. One of the Centre’s principal aims, however, is to encourage young investigators into the field and foster their careers.  www.trophoblast.cam.ac.uk

External contact

Dr Claire Cockcroft, Head of External Relations, Babraham Institute

tel: +44 (0)1223 496260
mob: +44 (0)7786 335978

Professor Wolf Reik, Babraham Institute

Contact

Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

tel: 01793 413299