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Of Mice and Men and Women: The Complex Trait Consortium Fifth Annual Meeting

By Ernie Hood
June 2006

Many of the world's leading mouse geneticists gathered May 6-9 at the Friday Center in Chapel Hill, as the NIEHS, UNC-Chapel Hill, and Agilent Technologies sponsored the fifth annual meeting of the Complex Trait Consortium (CTC). The CTC is a loosely-organized but tightly-knit community of scientists who share a common goal of investigating the genetic underpinnings of complex diseases and behaviors in humans.

The human and mouse genomes are 98% identical, so the mouse makes an ideal model for efforts to link genotype, or an individual's specific genes, with phenotype, the characteristics that result from those genes, such as disease susceptibility, drug and chemical exposure metabolism, and even hair and eye color. Since most phenotypes are determined by the interactions of a multitude of genes, along with the influence of environmental factors, it's an enormously difficult-but hugely important-undertaking.

Conference co-organizer David Threadgill, professor of genetics at UNC-Chapel Hill explained that individualized medicine is the ultimate goal. Threadgill said individualized medicine means "being able to predict which individuals are going to be susceptible to certain environmental exposures, or to certain disease processes, so that interventions and preventive medicine can be applied where they are needed, rather than in a global fashion."

The meeting attracted 150 attendees, 30 percent more than last year's conference in the Netherlands. Co-organizer John (Jef) French, an NIEHS research physiologist in the Environmental Toxicology Program, attributes the significant increase in attendance to a great degree of interest in the field from scientists at NIEHS, and other area institutions such as UNC, Duke, and North Carolina State University. And, he says, it was a fortuitous time for the conference to be held here in the Triangle. "When we decided to host the meeting here, it was about the same time the selection of the new director at NIEHS was taking place. So we were very pleased that David Schwartz has an interest in mouse genetics. And this fits in very well with the new strategic plan at NIEHS, in terms of employing the genetic diversity in the mouse in such a way that it helps meet the research goals of the NIEHS."

Over the meeting's four days, oral and poster presentations reported results of 93 studies in a wide variety of mouse genetics applications, including obesity, cancer, drug and alcohol addiction, heart failure, and diabetes. Many other presentations imparted the latest advances in methodologies and bioinformatics in the field.

But perhaps the most important news to emerge from the conference was excellent progress in a major long-range project the CTC has undertaken. The Collaborative Cross is an ambitious effort to generate 1000 inbred, genetically diverse mouse lines-starting from 8 heterogeneous strains-which will model the genetic diversity of the human population. Upon its expected completion in approximately four years, the mouse genetics community will have a remarkably valuable new tool, and the field should spawn rapid advances in understanding of complex human traits.

Innovative new tools and methodologies are in development to take full advantage of the Collaborative Cross, and pilot studies have been encouraging. All raw data will be shared by the entire community, and will be fully integrated. According to Threadgill, it's expected to become the central resource for experimental mammalian biology. "It will be the resource for the next 20 or 30 years," he says, "that allows us to integrate biological information, and understand how that integrated biological system data creates individual differences that can be exploited to help human health."

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