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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Campus building program supports rise in genome sciences

Jeff Dangl, a plant biologist, Vladmir Jojic, a computer scientist, and Surge Biswas, a statistics major, collaborate on plant genomics research.

More than a decade ago, Terry Magnuson was an internationally renowned geneticist at Case Western Reserve University overseeing a lab with 15 other scientists and 10,000 mice.

The building will be dedicated Oct. 12, University Day.

As one of the most sought-after scientists in mammalian genetics, he was also sitting in the proverbial catbird’s seat.

Sarah Lebeis, a postdoc in Dangl’s laboratory, checks notes near a fourth-floor window of the Genome Sciences Building overlooking a new amphitheater.

He was in demand among top research universities eager to gain a toehold in the emerging field of genomics that held the promise of transforming medicine and agriculture by determining the DNA sequence of organisms and employing fine-scale genetic mapping.

Each of the upper three floors of the Genome Sciences Building is organized around three large wet labs that receive ample natural light through floor-to-ceiling windows.

Magnuson ultimately chose Carolina, despite the fact that it had no genetics department and lacked research space to house it.

Even with these drawbacks, Magnuson noticed two essential assets other campuses lacked: Carolina boasted first-rate scientists across a broad spectrum of disciplines along with a culture of collaboration that cut across those fields.

Magnuson envisioned a genomics center that would complement existing research strengths in studying mouse models of diseases, genetics of model organisms, cancer research and clinical genetics.

Carolina’s interest in Magnuson began in 1999 shortly after landing a $2.6 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to help develop and staff a new genomics center. Researchers wanted Magnuson to run it, said Jeff Dangl, Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and John N. Couch Professor of Biology. Dangl was part of a faculty group trying to recruit him.

“The human genome was being sequenced, the genomes of many model organisms that are vital to understanding human biology were sequenced and the era of genome-based medicine was about to begin. And Carolina had no genetics department,” Dangl said.

Many faculty in the medical school and the College of Arts and Sciences felt that Carolina had to ramp up its human genetics efforts, he said.

“What emerged was the explicit concept that we would hire someone to be chair of genetics and the founding director of a genome science center, someone who would be blessed by all of UNC’s deans. That person was Terry.”

In July of 2000, Magnuson was hired as the founding chair of the School of Medicine’s Department of Genetics and director of the genetics center. He arrived on campus with his entire Case Western research team and lab mice.

Yet one problem remained. There was no place to put them.

But even then, Magnuson was confident that issue was about to be addressed.

Several months before Magnuson’s arrival, a delegation from the N.C. General Assembly toured Venable Hall, the antiquated hulk of a building that for many years housed Carolina’s esteemed chemistry department.

The tour underscored the need for the statewide higher education bond referendum that voters passed in November 2000. It earmarked about $499 million for the University – a funding source that helped trigger what would amount to a $2 billion construction boom on campus during the next decade.

The following February, when Chancellor Emeritus James Moeser announced a 10-year, $245 million public-private investment in a campus-wide genome science initiative, he pledged that funds would be set aside, not only to hire new scientists, but to build the research space they would need to flourish.

In the decade to follow, that dual vision has been largely fulfilled.

The first to be built was the Medical Biomolecular Research Building which is part of the School of Medicine. It was followed by the Bioinformatics Building, and then the Carolina Physical Science Complex, which replaced Venable Hall.

In addition to the bond funding, the General Assembly independently awarded the bulk of the $166 million to build the final piece in the genomics initiative—the Genome Sciences Building, anchored in the College of Arts and Sciences and located at the very center of campus.

The University leveraged those state dollars with facilities and administrative cost reimbursements from research grants and departmental funds. The building will be dedicated on University Day, Oct. 12. (See related story, Genome Sciences Building key to interdisciplinary research.)

“We need the right infrastructure, people and equipment in order to bring in the right faculty and do the right science,” Magnuson said. “That is what this building provides. It serves as a beacon to attract the best minds.”