News and Notes

A Newsletter for Faculty and Staff of Idaho State University

September 12, 2011 — Vol. 27 No. 36

Molecular Research Core Facility Earns Grant

Michael Thomas

A $194,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for a DNA sequencer will transform the research capabilities of Idaho State University's Molecular Research Core Facility (MRCF).

The grant is part of the NSF's Major Research Instrumentation program, which this year funded fewer than 15 percent of proposed projects.

"We are ecstatic that we received this grant," said Michael Thomas, ISU associate professor of biological sciences and MRCF academic director. "Next-generation DNA sequencers, like the Ion PGM we'll be able to purchase with this grant, represent a huge leap forward in technology. For example, while the human genome project, completed in 2000, took 10 years and cost $3 billion, a similar project on the Ion PGM would cost less than $20,000 and be completed in weeks."

ISU received that grant earlier this month. The grant is for the purchase of an Ion Torrent Personal Genome Machine (Ion PGM), which is a next-generation DNA sequencing device. This will be the only Ion PGM in Idaho, and the MRCF hopes to have the new equipment up and running by the end of October.

"We have clients with samples in hand, waiting for us to throw the switch," said Erin O'Leary-Jepsen, MRCF managing director.

Applying for this NSF grant was a project of the reorganized ISU Molecular Research Core Facility, which encompasses DNA sequencing and molecular research services, bioinformatics and computational research support, microscopy and advanced biological imaging, and cell analysis and flow cytometry.

"The Ion PGM will generate hundreds of thousands of dollars of additional revenue for the MRCF, which will be used to leverage additional new technologies and services," said Thomas.

"With the NSF funding tighter than ever, this project is a testament to the quality of research performed by ISU faculty," said Deb Easterly, ISU Director of Research Development and Compliance.

Currently, the ISU MRCF provides support services to grant-funded research projects at ISU that have pulled in more than $7 million of external funding.

"The new DNA sequencer will help increase external research funding for ISU by giving a tool to biological, biomedical and other researchers who will now be able to better compete for federal grants and contracts," Thomas said.

The sequencer will be used by faculty, staff and students from the chemistry, biological sciences, pharmaceutical sciences, psychology and anthropology departments. It can be used to conduct research in microbial evolution and biodiversity; adaptations to extreme environments and in response to global climate change; and comparative and evolutionary genome analyses that will lead to breakthroughs in our understanding of human diseases.

"The biggest winners of the grant will be ISU graduate and undergraduate students, who will have vastly enhanced training opportunities," Thomas said.

The MRCF has a history of providing training opportunities for students that then go on to biotechnology jobs, grad school and academic jobs. With the new equipment the number of student training opportunities will increase.

According to Thomas, the Ion PGM will form the core of a new computational biology training program designed to prepare students for the biotechnology job market, although the new program is still a couple of years away from being offered.

"A search in monster.com reveals hundreds of companies searching for people with skills in 'bioinformatics,' trained to analyze data from sequencers like the Ion PGM. The MRCF will play a role in preparing Idahoans for those jobs," explained Thomas.

The Ion PGM uses silicon computer chips to do the sequencing, rather than lasers used in older generation sequencers, which makes the PGM very scalable, cheaper, and much faster.

The official title of the grant is "MRI: Acquisition of an Ion Torrent PGM Sequencer for Research and Education," and is under the direction of MRCF academic director Thomas, chemistry assistant professor Caryn Evilia, MRCF managing director Erin O'Leary-Jepsen, anthropology assistant professor John V. Dudgeon, and physics and biological sciences associate professor Linda DeVeaux.

Other regional users of the new sequencer will include researchers from the INL, USDA Ag Research Station (Aberdeen), USGS (Boise), Boise State University and Montana State University. Several regional companies have also expressed interest in collaborating with ISU faculty for projects that would use the Ion PGM.