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Gene-by-Gene Detail of the Mouse Brain Online

September 27, 2006|Robert Lee Hotz | Times Staff Writer

Billionaire philanthropist Paul Allen on Tuesday unveiled a $41-million computerized atlas of the 20,000 genes that animate the brain of the common mouse.

As the first of its kind, the privately funded atlas encompasses 85 million photos, 250,000 slides and a gigabyte of laboratory data on each gene -- all available on the Web at www.brainatlas.org.

A mouse brain, weighing little more than a teaspoon of sugar, may be hundreds of times smaller than the human brain; yet both require the activity of thousands of genes acting in complex combinations to develop and function. Mice and men share almost 90% of their genes.

By tracking genetic activity in neural cells throughout the brain, the atlas documents the complexity of the organ, revealing that four of every five genes are active somewhere in the cells of the brain, usually in many areas at once.

"It is a critical steppingstone," said Caltech neuroscientist David Anderson, one of the project's advisors. "It has given us a new way of mapping the brain and it gives us a way to reveal its hidden genetic resources."

The atlas project was constructed by 80 researchers at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, which was established in 2003 with a $100-million gift from Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft Corp. who, among other holdings, owns the Seattle Seahawks football team and the Portland Trailblazers basketball team.

Since 1986, Allen has donated more than $800 million to projects largely located in the Pacific Northwest, where he was raised.

The brain atlas was not Allen's first foray into the philanthropy of high technology. Allen previously financed development of SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 carried out the first privately funded human spaceflight. The genetic atlas, Allen said Tuesday, grew out of his interest in the differences between computers and the brain.

"The more you learn about computers, the more you wonder about how the human brain functions," Allen said.

As a former Hodgkin's disease patient, Allen also was mindful of the medical potential of the atlas, which is expected to speed the search for treatments of conditions such as Alzheimer's disease and autism. He said, "All of us are affected in some way or another -- directly or indirectly -- by a brain-related disease. I had a grandparent who died of Parkinson's disease.

"So, I was very pleased there was an opportunity to create a genetic database that could be a great tool for scientists worldwide. It would jump-start their research ... as a Rosetta stone."

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lee.hotz@latimes.com

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