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April 25, 2005

Dedication of New Genetics Center Set for May 2

The Center for Applied Genetics and Technology brings together resources at UConn to offer an unusual blend of basic genomics research capabilities and expertise in forensics applications. On May 2, the new center, located in a recently renovated wing of Beach Hall, will be dedicated.

The cornerstone of the center is a Laboratory for Nontraditional DNA Typing that will focus on forensic DNA “fingerprinting” research, laying the groundwork for improving the technology and methodology of DNA typing at crime labs. It will also give students firsthand experience in modern methods of genetic analysis. The lab is funded by a $2 million grant from the National Institute of Justice.

The lab will investigate new additions to “the crime lab repertoire of DNA analysis,” says Linda Strausbaugh, a professor of molecular and cell biology and the center’s director. These include using mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome DNA as genetic markers, and exploring the use of non-human DNA in crime scene analysis, such as testing plants and soil.

Renovations and equipping of the center’s multiple laboratories have been under way for about two years. Instruments were purchased through a major instrumentation grant from the National Science Foundation.

What is unusual about the center is the array of expertise it provides, including genetics research that has applications in the biotechnology industry; forensics research that is of interest to crime labs and the legal community; and basic genomics research that is furthered by the University’s faculty and the center’s state-of-the-art instruments.

A gene chip analytical system, for example, offers higher capabilities than any similar instrument at the University and is being used by research scientists to generate data on the expression of thousands of genes in a single experiment.

The center’s testing of the latest instruments and methodologies and its development of new strategies in DNA typing will have applications for public safety and criminal justice – in prosecuting criminals, exonerating the innocent, and protecting the public and ensuring civil liberties in homeland security efforts.

The center will collaborate with industry to find new methods of DNA typing and improve on traditional methods.

Several of the projects under way at the center’s nontraditional DNA typing lab have been identified by the DNA unit of the Connecticut State Police Forensic Science Laboratory as important in the improvement of crime labs. They include creating a non-felon DNA database of Connecticut area residents; finding new methods of human DNA identification; and typing microbial DNA from soil samples.

The facility, which includes several laboratories, a small genomics and forensics library, offices, a conference room, and teaching and seminar spaces, can also be used for training courses, such as a hands-on workshop for attorneys in DNA typing techniques.

“It really is one of those places where that ideal synergy between research, service, and teaching actually happens,” says Strausbaugh.

The dedication ceremony is expected to be attended by leading figures in the field. Renowned forensics expert Dr. Henry C. Lee, former director of the state police crime lab, and current crime lab officials have indicated they will be at the dedication. Dr. Lois Tully, deputy chief of the Office of Science and Technology in the Investigative and Forensic Sciences Division of the Department of Justice, is also expected.

Judith Resnick, director of workforce development and training for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association (CBIA), will attend, as will corporate representatives from national and regional biotechnology and biomedical companies. Scientific collaborators from genomics instrumentation firms around the country are also expected.

The center’s labs are already being used by faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students in microbiology, genetics, evolutionary biology, molecular and cell biology, animal science, and engineering. A new graduate-level course, “DNA, Fingerprinting and Civil Liberties,” is taught there, as well as “Techniques in Functional Genomics” and an undergraduate lab course, “Experiments in DNA Identification.”

Strausbaugh also directs the Professional Science Master’s degree in applied genomics, which started three years ago at UConn and is based in the new center. Several of the 15 students to graduate so far have held internships or taken jobs at the state police crime lab.