HAMBURG, Germany - Epigenomics GmbH, of Berlin, last week announced the European Union would finance a pilot project of the Human Epigenome Consortium (HEC) with $1.1 million.

HEC was founded in December to compile methylation patterns for each of the several hundred different human tissue types and to raise money for this task. (See BioWorld International, Dec. 15, 1999.)

Methylation of the DNA base cytosine plays a key role in the regulation of gene activity, so DNA methylation patterns reflect the patterns of gene activity in a given cell or tissue type. Epigenomics has developed a method that, for the first time, allows an amplification of the methylation signal, and devised a chip to map these patterns.

However, to map all of the approximately 400,000 cytosines in the human genome that are potentially methylated and to compare their patterns in the up-to-500 different human tissues will be a task comparable to the efforts to sequence the entire human genome.

Therefore the HEC decided to start a pilot project to map methylation patterns in the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) - a very gene-rich region and the most polymorphic region in the human genome, comprising 4 million base pairs, or 1/1000 of the human genome. MHC proteins play a key role in presenting antigens to immune cells, and the scientists will analyze MHC regions in about 20 tissues, mainly classes of immune cells, and compare methylation patterns of inactive cells to those activated against certain pathogens or autoimmune diseases. This project now will be funded with US$1.1 million.

HEC members include the Sanger Centre, of Cambridge, UK; the Centre National de Genotypage, of Paris; and from Germany the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics, of Berlin; the German Cancer Research Institute, of Heidelberg; the Technical University, of Berlin; and Medeea GmbH, of Hamburg. Epigenomics GmbH will serve as a coordinator.

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