Genomics: The Next Technological Frontier?

When J.C. Venter and his team of genomic researchers completed the sequencing and analysis of the human genome in 2001, the scientific world was turned on its head. Dr Venter went on to found a research institute  to support putting the gene mapping technology to work for the benefit of humankind. The Global Ocean Sampling expedition is a recently completed study by the same organisation, conceived for the purpose of evaluating the microbial diversity in the world’s oceans using the tools and techniques developed to sequence the human and other genomes. In the spirit of Darwin the researchers circumnavigated the oceans of the globe sampling a vast diversity of water-borne microbacteria. The project turned up millions of previously unknown genes and thousands of proteins. That the research was part funded by the U.S. Department of Energy gives some indication as to where this work is heading.

Microbial life forms were largely responsible for the deposition and decomposition of much of the materials that now form the basis of the global supply of oil. So it stands to reason that energy researchers should become more interested in the biogenic pathways that led there. In fact a small New Zealand company has recently received a boost for its gas-to-ethanol technology that employs bacteria to break down carbon monoxide to form ethanol. Influential Silicon Valley investor Khosla Ventures even saw fit to make a substantial investment in the company.

These developments underline the fact that there is a niche market for a range of technologies that arise from research into molecular biology and New Zealand is well placed to contribute because we have a highly regarded research community including the Bioinformatics Research Institute at Auckland University.

Biomatters is another New Zealand company that has identified the potential of this market. The company has recently moved its R&D headquarters inside the Bioinformatics Institute where it collaborates closely at the cutting edge of research. The firm has developed bioinformatics software for molecular biologists and biochemists. Their research software application provides protein and molecular visualisation, literature search help and data storage tools.

The institute is a great example of a public-private partnership that has the potential to spin off some world class research and more projects with commercialisation potential in the future. In fact there has been a shift in the landscape favouring “centres of excellence” as the preferred vehicle for high end innovation. There is a wealth of talent available around the country in applied technologies such as biotech, software, digital media and design. It would be great to see some more of these initiatives spring up outside of Auckland.

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