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Columbia Spectator Staff

Two thousand years ago, there stood near the mouth of the River Nile an edifice of unparalleled worth. It housed within its walls a collection of nearly half a million scrolls, and its wealth was measured not in coin or bullion but in the words of scholars and philosophers. The Royal Library of Alexandria was the greatest library in the classical world. While for over a millennium the library has been little more than rubble, its legacy has remained unchallenged. Although the mantle of the world's largest library has been taken up by many different institutions, not one has revolutionized scholarship as did the Royal Library of Alexandria. But no longer. The foundation has been laid for a new library, one that will eclipse both the sheer magnitude of our largest modern libraries and the impact of the Royal Library of Alexandria. The entrance to this new library will be neither a marble portico nor a limestone colonnade, but a computer. And it will be stacked with neither scrolls nor books, but with digital tomes comprised entirely of only four letters: A, C, T, and G. These four letters represent the four nucleotides that comprise the blueprint of all life, DNA, and out of these four letters are built the genetic material of every organism on the planet. Each piece in the library's collection will be a sequence of over 3.4 billion As, Cs, Ts, and Gs, in an ostensibly random sequence. But in fact, it is variations in this sequence that distinguish humans from mice and bananas. This is the library on the horizon, portended by the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003 and the International HapMap Project in 2005, both of which sought to identify and sequence all of the estimated 20,000 to 25,000 genes in the human genome. Before Gutenberg built the first printing press, the dissemination of written work bore great expense in both money and time, and until recently, the effort to populate this genomic library with the genetic information of thousands of people promised to be similarly challenging. But the industry of DNA sequencing may have found its Gutenberg. The year 2009 has already been host to a bout of academic upmanship between California-based Complete Genomics, which released proof-of-concept sequencing data and promised a $5000-per-head commercial genome sequencing program, and Pennsylvania-based BioNanomatrix, which plans a 2019 launch of $100, eight-hour genome reads. Oxford Nanopore, based in Great Britain, has also joined the fray by publishing in Nature Nanotechnology a new technique that allows for the direct identification of nucleotides without using the conventional labeling and imaging equipment. The construction of this genomic atheneum has also seen legislative progress. On February 17, President Barack Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which seeks to jumpstart the economy and includes a $10 billion package for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to fund new research projects. As part of the Recovery Act, the NIH were designated at least $200 million for the 2009-2010 fiscal year for a new initiative called the NIH Challenge Grants in Health and Science Research, and it comes as no surprise that these grants support a number of projects that seek to identify features of the human genome that relate to disease. The NIH supports research at Columbia as well. Professor Jingyue Ju of the department of chemical engineering and Columbia Genome Center received a $950,000 grant from the NIH in 2008 "to continue developing a novel molecular engineering approach to decipher the human genome." Building the genomic citadel may have just gotten the push it needed to become one of the hottest and most promising areas of research for the coming decade, and for aspiring researchers at Columbia, the avenues of entry are numerous. Not only is there a genome center at Columbia, which seeks to discover the technologies that will enable breakthroughs in biomedical science, but also there is the Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics, or C2B2, with which the Columbia Genome Center works closely. For both those who are inspired by the monumental effort of building this library and those who are driven by the unceasing work of fighting disease and improving the quality of human life, there are opportunities at Columbia in which to get involved. And perhaps, with a bit more involvement on the part of interested Columbia students, the genomic library will soon become a worthy inheritor of the legacy of the Royal Library of Alexandria. Adrian Haimovich is a School of Engineering and Applied Science junior majoring in applied mathematics. Vedant Misra is a Columbia College senior majoring in physics and mathematics. Nova runs alternate Wednesdays. opinion@columbiaspectator.com

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