Thursday, September 28, 2006

Billionaire spends millions mapping mouse brains

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- So you're a billionaire and you've bought a couple of sports teams, launched an amateur space project and spent $800 million on good causes -- what do you do with the change?

Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen decided to make a genetic atlas of the mouse brain.

The atlas, begun in 2002 with $100 million from Allen's fortune, was declared finished on Tuesday, with fine-tuned information on 3,000 active genes -- although scientists have been using it regularly for more than a year.

Allen said working with computers all his life made him appreciate the complexities of the brain. "You realize that computers take a very simplistic approach to computing things," Allen told Reuters in an interview.

"Ever since I grew up in Seattle as a kid, I was fascinated by science," he added. So he found a group of scientists and asked them what he should do with some of his money.

The result -- the first project of the Allen Institute for Brain Science -- a 3-D reference atlas of the genes that are active in the mouse brain.

Allen, who left Microsoft in 1983 and has an estimated fortune of $16 billion, makes the map freely available online at

"Since mice and humans share more than 90 percent of genes, the Allen Brain Atlas has enormous potential for understanding human neurological diseases and disorders affecting more than 50 million Americans each year," the institute said in a statement.

These include Alzheimer's disease, which affects 4.5 million Americans, autism, which may occur in one in every 175 births, epilepsy, which affects 2.7 million Americans, schizophrenia and Parkinson's disease.

In four years, scientists working for the Atlas project have mapped more than 21,000 genes. They then checked each gene to see which ones are turned on -- expressed -- in brain tissue.

Each cell in an organism's body carries all the genes, but not all of them are expressed, or active. Gene expression is what determines each cell's type and function.

To their surprise, Allen's team found that more than 80 percent of the genes in the brain are active. They had believed that perhaps 60 or 70 percent were expressed.

The atlas was produced using in situ hybridization, a technique that uses a chemical marker such as a jellyfish fluorescence gene to show whether a gene is active.

Tissue containing cells expressing each active gene was stained, photographed and the pictures uploaded to the Web site.

That makes it easy to browse.

"It's a bit like peeling the onion," said Allan Jones, the institute's chief scientific officer.

The institute said an average of 250 scientists looked at the site a day, with more than 4 million hits monthly.

While examining the mouse brain is critical for basic scientific research, Allen also wants to look at the unique parts of the human brain.

"The next set of research we are going to do is focus on the neocortex -- the area where most higher function occurs," Allen said.

Allen, who owns the Seattle Seahawks football team and the Portland Trail Blazers basketball team and funds a charitable foundation and the SpaceShipOne space project, is asking for other foundations and the U.S. government to help support the institute project.

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