Genetic Scientists Boost Knowledge Economy

5 January 2009

A new collaborative research programme led by scientists at Crown Research Institute Scion could impact everything from the food we eat, to the things we make, and the medical diagnoses we undergo, by better managing genetic information.

The project will draw on New Zealand’s most highly skilled gene mapping statisticians and geneticists from eight universities, CRIs and private companies.

Scion researcher, Dr Phillip Wilcox explains that the explosion in genomic technologies worldwide is generating vast quantities of new data that scientists are struggling to make sense of.

"Genome sequencing is fast becoming a routine way of identifying genetic traits in humans, plants, animals, bacteria and viruses for both medical and commercial breeding purposes.

"The difficulty is that new technologies are needed to process the huge amount of data generated by increased genome sequencing," Dr Wilcox explains.

"The statistical methods capable of turning all this data into useable information have lagged behind, forming a roadblock to future progress," he says.

Dr Wilcox says a more effective system for analysing data will make better information accessible for everything from medical diagnosis to improved plant and animal breeding.

To tackle this problem, Scion has received investment from the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology to design a world-class science platform that addresses complex statistical challenges associated with massive gene databanks.

As one of Scion’s collaborators, Otago University’s Dr Tony Merriman applauds the initiative.

"This research programme brings together statistical geneticists and biological geneticists, a move vital to enable biomedical geneticists such as myself to manage and interpret the large amounts of genetic data we are generating. This is a prelude to using genetic information to improve health," he says.

The outcomes of this five-year research programme will be to enhance global advances in data analysis and improve New Zealand’s competitive advantage in the biological sectors.

Within the last five years New Zealand has significantly improved its computing power through investment in high throughput computing infrastructure and in establishing high speed networking capability, such as KAREN (

Dr Wilcox sees this development as an opportunity to carry out the computationally intensive work demanded by this research challenge and to create a "virtual" research environment to connect the collaborating organisations who are contributing for it.

"New statistical technologies developed in the programme will enable compression of breeding cycles through gene mapping of relevant species, and diagnosis of complex traits in human populations, plants and animals," he concludes.