Improving animal and human wellbeing: Initiative connects genomics researchers

COLLEGE STATION — Animal Science faculty are part of a group of scientists at Texas A&M University leading the Whole Systems Genomics Initiative. These scientists are committed to applying genomics research to improve the overall wellbeing of humans and animals, as well as environmental stewardship.

What is the Whole Systems Genomics Initiative?
Whole Systems Genomics for Human, Animal, and Environmental Wellbeing (WSGI) is one of eight Initial University Multidisciplinary Research Initiatives that represent “landmark areas” of research (abbreviated WSGI). Dr. Penny Riggs, assistant professor, and Dr. Clare Gill, associate professor, lead this effort in the Department of Animal Science as co-chairs of WSGI’s Implementation Team, an executive committee charged with developing and overseeing the activities of WSGI.

WSGI originated in the Department of Animal Science when Riggs and Gill presented the initial concept to other groups working on genomics-related projects. Several groups merged into the final WSGI proposal that was submitted by a team of 24 faculty including Riggs, Gill, Dr. Nancy Ing and Dr. Thomas Welsh, Jr., from Animal Science. A total of 125 Texas A&M faculty and staff participated in submission of the proposal including Dr. Marcel Amstalden, Dr. Fuller Bazer, Dr. Andy Herring, Dr. Jim Sanders, Dr. Thomas Spencer, Dr. Matthew Taylor and Dr. Dan Waldron, all faculty in Animal Science.

How did WSGI get its name?
At Texas A&M, and within the Texas A&M University System, existing strengths in genomics and continued research efforts contribute greatly to improvements in food animal and crop productivity, improvements in nutrition, marketability, pest and disease control, human, animal and plant health, and a host of other achievements. In total, WSGI research scientists are committed to improving the overall wellbeing of humans and animals and promoting environmental stewardship. The long name reflects the importance of the “connectedness” of these diverse research areas, and acknowledges the overall impact of advances in genomics, in the context of a “whole system.” For example, advances in beef cattle genomics might simultaneously contribute to improvements in bovine health, productivity, beef products, resource use, and economic prosperity.

How and when did WSGI begin? 
In fall of 2008, the university provost challenged faculty and staff to submit short “white paper” proposals to form multidisciplinary research landmarks that would address grand societal challenges, and at the same time, enable programs at Texas A&M University to achieve renown. The philosophy for the process was that because Top Ten institutions are not built upon narrow visions, faculty and staff should “think big” in drafting conceptual plans. This period was a unique and exciting time for faculty to shape and build new ventures on campus. During the process, numerous groups began organizing, drafting papers, merging and revising ideas, until finally, 111 concepts were submitted as white papers.

Faculty, staff and students in the Department of Animal Science were actively involved in this process, and led, or participated significantly, in many of the 18 finalist proposals, and the eight awardees that were ultimately selected during the initial funding period. One of the eight, WSGI, began very simply to develop a campus- wide project to expand and enhance genomics research, and address data analysis and infrastructure needs required for that expansion. The idea was that a collective group could work together and capitalize on the tremendous strengths and expertise that already exist at TAMU, to integrate efforts in genomics across a broad range of organisms, as well as social sciences, computational biology, and related disciplines. Development of a cohesive and functional genomics center or institute would bring people together, improve the efficiency of resource utilization and acquisition of new equipment, and help strengthen future funding applications.

Staff and students in the department were instrumental in production of an overview video for the WSGI concept that was presented at an all-university retreat in Spring 2009. The video can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v+fWXjR5gFCKw.

What is WSGI doing now? 
In some ways, the group is still in its early stages but is actively progressing on the goals outlined in the white paper proposal. One important objective is to foster interaction between faculty, staff, and students who use genomics tools in their research, or who study and apply the outcomes and consequences of genomics research findings, or determine whether technology should be adopted. To date, WSGI has accomplished a number of achievements and activities:

In the spring of 2011, a new multidisciplinary course called Genomics & Society introduced graduate and undergraduate students, including Animal Science students, to the discussion and application of genomics in conjunction with ethics, public policy, livelihoods, and health – all topics with relevance to agriculture. The course will continue to be taught during spring semesters.

WSGI was leveraged in a 2011 submission for Budget Reallocation: Activity 2 that was recently funded as a Tier One Program (TOP) interdisciplinary education grant to create the Aggie Undergraduate Genomics Corps and train students in bioinformatics and genomic data analysis.

Kranti Konganti, bioinformatics programmer, and Sally Gaddis, senior genomics programmer, joined WSGI as staff in 2012 to support bioinformatics, genome sequencing, and genomic analysis projects.

♦ An exhibit, Genomics: The Secret of Life, is scheduled to be housed at the George Bush Presidential Library for a nine-month period beginning in August, 2012. The exhibit is underwritten by Texas AgriLife Research. WSGI will co-sponsor the exhibit and help develop additional content that will highlight genomics achievements at Texas A&M. An estimated 100,000 visitors will see the exhibit.

Catalyst grant funds and graduate traineeships have been awarded to Texas A&M and System faculty and graduate students to stimulate novel genomics research and interdisciplinary graduate study. Importantly, this initiative has resulted in the formation of many new research teams including several faculty from Animal Science. These new collaborations are enhancing research all over campus. Graduate traineeships were awarded to 13 students in five different graduate programs beginning in January 2011, including doctoral students Lauren Hulsman (ANBR) and Robert Vaughn (GENE) in Animal Science.

In June 2011, the first WSGI Summer Forum was held and featured lively discussion on key genomics-related research questions, desired services and instrumentation, and solutions to research barriers. These interactive sessions will help collaborative research groups apply genomics technology more effectively. An external advisory group of distinguished scientists also participated in the forum, and congratulated WSGI and Texas A&M for its success in integrating genome science and social science, and for involving faculty, staff, graduate students, and undergraduate students across multiple colleges and departments. Animal Science faculty continue to lead these activities. WSGI will host its second forum in September 2012.

What does WSGI have planned for the future?
As WSGI participants continue to make breakthroughs in genome science and achieve their goals, they hope to see this initiative grow into an entity that will contribute to development of a leading genomics research institute.

A redesigned WSGI website will be online in April and will have news updates describing TAMU accomplishments in genomics. The site will also be a gateway for information about genomics resources at TAMU.

The Genomics programmer staff will provide bioinformatics and genomics programming and computational support.

Ten catalyst grant projects are currently underway. New applications for catalyst grants are due April 13 to encourage new collaborative efforts and new research ideas

Applications for 2012-13 WSGI graduate traineeships were due March 30.

Monthly invited speakers, activities and special events will be held in conjunction with the Genomics Exhibit at the Bush Presidential Library and Museum, beginning with a fall research forum in September 2012.

WSGI will actively promote organization and formation of interdisciplinary research teams. These faculty will lead future innovation and advancement in genomics research. They will also work together to pursue federal funding for graduate and undergraduate training, infrastructure and instrumentation, and other research activities.

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For more information regarding news from the Department of Animal Science, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Texas A&M University, please contact Courtney Coufal at cacoufal@tamu.edu or (979) 845-1542.

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