Ireland should be centre for genome research, expert says

21 May 2010

Following on the news of the creation of the first synthetic life form by Craig Venter and his team in the US, one of Ireland’s top biologists and bioinformatics researchers has called on the Government to recognise the work of Irish scientists in this area and set up an Irish Centre for Bioinformatics.

“This makes so much sense for Ireland and the Government’s ideal of the ‘smart economy’. First of all, we do quite a bit of the analysis of DNA and protein sequences and computational biology in Ireland already. It is less expensive than most parts of science and we have a history of doing it incredibly well. I’m surprised that the Government hasn’t created some kind of national centre for bioinformatics or some kind of organisation or vehicle for doing this in Ireland. It’s something that’s becoming increasingly useful.

“Just look at Venter’s experiments, which are heavily based on bioinformatics analysis and trying to understand genomes, and you think, we should really be doing more of that, because historically we’ve done it very, very well. We’ve some of the world’s finest bioinformatics people in Ireland,” says Dr James McInerney, senior lecturer and principle investigator in the Molecular Evolution and Bioinformatics Unit in National University of Ireland, Maynooth (NUIM).

McInerney believes that Venter’s research has many implications for Irish scientists. “Venter is a pretty amazing scientist in the sense that he can get things done and he likes to do things that are a little bit different. Since the late Seventies, it’s been possible for us to put bits and pieces of DNA from one organism into another – this manifests itself in GM food, in vaccines, in insulin that we make. The technology to do this has been around for 30 years. It’s just that Venter has done an experiment that’s on a much more ambitious scale – that’s the kind of scientist he is.

“What Venter has done is said here’s a way in which we can make new products, make new vaccines, we can clean up oil spills, we can design bugs. What this means for Irish science is that it’s probably now easier to convince investors that we’re just around the corner from having exciting new products and exciting new organisms for biotechnology. For Irish scientists it should mean that it’s easier to generate new products that will make money and make jobs.”

McInerney himself is currently in the process of setting up a spin-out company called GeneOrigins, whose work is based on research by the Bioinformatics Department in NUIM.

“The thing about GeneOrigins is that we’re trying to generate revenue from 10 years of research in Maynooth where we’ve figured out how to do various kinds of analysis and handle data and understand biology, and now we’re taking everything we’ve learned over the last decade and we’re going to turn it into a bioinformatics services company. It’s just starting right now but our first indications are that there’s a real demand for it. There are similar companies around the world that have started up recently have become successful as a result. It’s venture science.”

By Deirdre Nolan