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NMSU Gets $8.5 Million Grant for New National Biotechnology Information Facility

LAS CRUCES -- Cross a tiger with a lion. Or an elephant with a mouse. To kids, the possibilities of genetic engineering are exciting and infinite.


"Children are very intrigued about the idea of combining genes," said Mary O'Connell, a plant geneticist with New Mexico State University. "Some of their ideas are a little bit out there, but they have a lot of enthusiasm."

O'Connell hopes to build on that enthusiasm in her efforts as outreach coordinator for NMSU's new National Biotechnology Information Facility.

In September, the Army Research Office awarded NMSU a five-year, $8.5 million grant to develop the facility that will support research in biotechnology and strengthen biological science programs at historically black colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions like NMSU. Project collaborators include scientists with NMSU's Physical Science Laboratory (PSL) and the molecular biology program, as well as the National Center for Genome Resources in Santa Fe.

Much of the work will focus on connecting numerous biotechnology databases available in the United States and throughout the world through a central World Wide Web site.

"Our interest is to enhance the educational resources of everyone in the country, but we have a special need to improve the opportunities for ethnic minority students, both regionally and nationally," O'Connell said. "That's why NMSU is an excellent place to do this work. We have outstanding students and a very diverse student body."

O'Connell will coordinate activities to bring teachers to campus to learn how using the internet can enhance biotechnology resources in their classrooms.

"Our main emphasis will be on how teachers can use databases to enhance their curriculum and excite students to pursue careers in the biomedical sciences," she said.

O'Connell says teachers can use visuals and computer graphics to help children learn about cells and genes. "For example, I imagine a computer program that shows a picture of a cell. Students could 'click on' or select different parts of the cell to learn more," she said. "It would be like a puzzle, which appeals to kids."

Another outreach activity will bring faculty from minority institutions across the United States to NMSU to collaborate and learn how to use the biotechnology databases.

Coordinating the database effort will be the responsibility of Greg Phillips, head of the molecular biology program.

The most important database in the project, the Genome Sequence Database, includes all of the known genetic sequence information about DNA molecules.

"We can use this database to predict new genetic sequences, what their functions might be, and what similarities new genes might have to other genes," Phillips said.

He plans to connect this database, provided by the National Center for Genome Resources, with other databases about chemical molecules, proteins and enzymes.

In the end, he hopes to link information about what DNA sequence makes up a gene to how that gene works in the cell and, finally, to how that cell works in an organ or organism.

"We will work with computational scientists at PSL and at the National Center for Genome Resources to put the right kinds of information into databases and to connect diverse databases in novel ways," he said.

Edward Burlbaw of PSL will lead the effort to develop the new facility. He said while there are many places across the nation that house some bits of biotechnology information, the new NMSU facility will consolidate it.

"Any scientist or educator will be able to get all of this information in one place at our World Wide Web site," Burlbaw said. "They'll really have access to information, not just reams of data."