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The following article appears by permission of The Scientist.

An update to this article is available from EuroImage.

The Scientist 13[4]:17, Feb. 15, 1999

Edited by: Steve Bunk and Eugene Russo
G. Lennon, C. Auffray, M. Polymeropoulos, M.B. Soares, “The I.M.A.G.E. Consortium: An Integrated Molecular Analysis of Genomes and Their Expression,” Genomics33:151­2, 1996. (Cited in more than 290 papers since publication)

Comments by Greg Lennon, chief scientific officer at Gene Logic in Gaithersburg, Md.

If there were a Book of Genesis for genetics, perhaps it would begin with Data, that begets Information, that begets Knowledge, that begets those salutary twins Therapy and Prevention. Such a book would be written by thousands of scribes, in hundreds of journals, over scores of years. How much more remarkable it is, then, that just four scientists with varying skills in the same field could have pooled their talents to make a worldwide impact on the course of genetic data-gathering.

Soares, Polymeropoulos, Auffray, Lennon(L to R) M. Bento Soares, Mihael Polymeropoulos, Charles Auffray, Greg Lennon

It began in a bar following a Department of Energy (DOE) conference on genomics in November 1993. The four scientists, who later became the authors of this paper, “realized we could work together to provide a truly useful public resource that would aid gene discovery efforts worldwide and not be subject to patent/royalty/reach-through restrictions,” as lead author Greg Lennon puts it.

They named the nonprofit consortium IMAGE (Integrated Molecular Analysis of Genome Expression). Their specific objectives, as described in this paper, were twofold. First, they wanted to share libraries of complementary DNA (cDNA) clones, which are made from DNA copies of messenger RNA that are joined to a vector, allowing for propagation in bacteria. These clones are arrayed individually into banks of 384 tiny wells, and copied multiple times for distribution around the world. The second goal was that data concerning sequence, mapping, and expression derived from the use of the clones would be placed in public domain databases. The motto they chose for their project was, “Sharing resources to aid the discovery of all genes.”

To begin, the foursome donated the necessary time. The first cDNA libraries were contributed by M. Bento Soares, then an assistant professor of neurogenetics at Columbia University and now associate professor of pediatrics and physiology and biophysics at the University of Iowa. Initial sequencing was done by Charles Auffray, research director at Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Villejuif, France. Initial mapping was contributed by Mihael Polymeropoulos, then a National Institutes of Health genome researcher and now vice president of neurogenetics at Novartis Corp. in Hagerstown, Md. Lennon did the arraying, distribution, and bioinformatics work at DOE’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., where he then was a senior scientist.

By the time this paper was published, DOE was supplying financial assistance, a collaboration had been established with a joint public domain sequencing project between Washington University and Merck and Co., and worldwide demand for clones and information was soaring. Today, IMAGE holds by far the world’s largest public collection of genes, with more than two million distinct cDNA clones distributed worldwide at minimal cost to recipients through a network of five dedicated distributors. The clones come from more than 200 human cDNA libraries representing more than 40 tissue types. Other species also are being catalogued, notably the mouse and zebrafish.

Yet, the realization of these men’s vision has been somewhat mitigated by the conflicting interests of science and the marketplace. Big, proprietary collections of clones and sequences also have been compiled. An expression database–the phenotypical information that is a step closer to practical applications–is yet to appear in the public domain. IMAGE’s clones and sequences are now primarily aids to gene discovery and to the Human Genome Project, says Lennon, who remains active in maintaining the consortium’s collection.

“There’s still a great need for a public domain database capturing expression information,” he comments. “History shows that large-scale public efforts can be incredibly complementary to more individual academic or commercial efforts if effectively communicated, such as with publicly accessible databases and reagents.”

Unlike some for-profit companies, IMAGE continues to make its clones available free of proprietary restrictions such as royalties. Moreover, the consortium is now moving into the field of functional genomics, with programs in DNA repair, structural biology, and microbial biotechnology. In these respects, the worlds of business and “pure” science are evolving separately.

The IMAGE Web address: