Gilbert Genome Center To Close

As a result of a loss of government funding, one of Harvard's major biology laboratories will be shutting down this summer, forcing more than a dozen scientists and technicians to bunt for jobs elsewhere.

Loeb University Professor Walter Gilbert was unable to renew a $2 million a year grant for funding of Harvard's Genome Laboratory, a major center for the $3 billion national Human Genome Project.

In 1990, Gilbert was awarded a three year contract from the National Institutes of Health to develop a new technology for sequencing DNA. Without a renewal, the contract will expire this July.

Gilbert said he was "disappointed" when he heard last month that his grant to support his portion of the Genome Project would not be renewed.

"This is something that happens," said Gilbert, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1980 for his work on a novel DNA sequencing technique. "It shuts off my research activities in the Human Genome Project."

Human DNA consists of a string of molecules called nucleotides, sequences of which code for the proteins essential for life. The Human Genome Project is a $3 billion national endeavor to map the location of every human gene.


"We had a [15-year] goal to ultimately work out all the genes by about 2004," said Gilbert, who chairs the biology department.

According to Patrick M. Gillevet, director and chief scientist of the Harvard Genome Laboratory, Gilbert's project was to develop a direct sequencing method, using bacteria as models.

"It's a genomic walking strategy," he said. "We take the whole genome of this bacteria and walk along it, and actually sequence it directly."

Gilbert will not be the only one affected by the loss. A total of 15 scientists work in the genome laboratory, including four computer lab technicians, eight bench technicians and three professional scientists. Because the lab is closing, many of them have been forced to find new employment.

"It was panicked there for a while, but things have calmed down a bit, now that people have found jobs," Gillevet said.

Gillevet said he will move elsewhere to continue the project. "I think [the technicians] feel a little bit better that I'm bringing the project with me, so the technology will be continued," he said.

Gilbert and Gillevet both denied that the loss of funding was a result of spending cuts in the Clinton administration. "There's no policy shift in the government," Gilbert said.

Instead, Gilbert said, the National Institutes of Health simply did not give his project a high enough priority.

"A group of external scientists come and examine the project and report to a review group in the government," Gilbert said. "They ask whether this should be funded and with what priority it should be funded."

Gillevet said a possible factor in the Institutes' decision may have been that the developmental phase of the project took longer than expected.