Public Release: 

Tackling a 'hairy beast'

NIGMS and NSF fund sequencing of Tetrahymena genome

NIH/National Institute of General Medical Sciences

Two new federal grants will allow scientists to sequence and analyze the genome of the single-celled model organism Tetrahymena thermophila in a collaborative effort that will benefit a wide range of research, from experimental cell and molecular biology to comparative and functional genomics.

The Tetrahymena sequencing project is being led by scientists at The Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Md., in coordination with the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Stanford University. The National Institute of General Medical Sciences and the National Science Foundation have just awarded grants totaling $6.43 million to support this project.

"Biomedical research using Tetrahymena as a model organism has yielded major advances in a surprisingly broad range of areas," said Judith Greenberg, Ph.D., acting director of NIGMS. "We expect the sequencing of the Tetrahymena genome to be of great benefit to the scientific community and to have a significant impact on our understanding of how cells work."

NIGMS, which is part of the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is the primary source of funding at the NIH for research involving Tetrahymena.

Tetrahymena is a member of a group of single-celled organisms called ciliates which are characterized by hairlike projections, or cilia, that allow them to swim. Tetrahymena's many cilia have earned it an unoffical nickname of "hairy beast." Like humans, ciliates are eukaryotic organisms (their DNA is packaged into a structure called a nucleus).

"Tetrahymena is an excellent model system for studying the biology of all eukaryotes, including humans," said Jonathan Eisen, Ph.D., principal investigator at TIGR. "And the use of Tetrahymena as a model will be greatly facilitated by deciphering its complete genome sequence."

This project will promote unrestricted and user-friendly access to the Tetrahymena thermophila genome sequence, Eisen said, by releasing the data immediately and by creating two interlinked database resources for researchers: a database of genomic information and annotation at TIGR and a manually curated Tetrahymena Genome Database at Stanford University. Eduardo Orias, Ph.D., of UC Santa Barbara will provide project liaison with the ciliate research community.

Major fundamental advances based on studies of Tetrahymena include determination of the structure and function of telomeres--the caps that protect the ends of chromosomes in eukaryotes--and the Nobel Prize-winning discovery that RNA can catalyze biochemical reactions.

"The results of this genome sequencing project will tell us much about how complex cells function and will also provide insight into the diversity and history of life on Earth," said Matthew Kane, Ph.D., Molecular and Cellular Biosciences program director for the National Science Foundation.

The three-year grant from NIGMS for Tetrahymena sequencing and analysis totals $3.87 million, and the two-year grant from NSF totals $2.56 million. The NIGMS grant also includes funds for database development.

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TIGR is a not-for-profit institute that conducts research involving the structural, functional and comparative analysis of genomes and gene products in viruses, bacteria, archaea and eukaryotes.

NIGMS supports basic biomedical research that lays the foundation for advances in disease diagnosis, treatment and prevention.

NSF is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering.

Additional Media Contacts:
TIGR -- Robert Koenig, Publications/Public Affairs Manager, 301-838-5880; rkoenig@tigr.org
NSF -- Sean Kearns, Public Affairs Specialist

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