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Centre for Gene Research - A brief history and background

The Centre for Gene Research (CGR) was established in 1990 and Tony Robinson (Virus Research Unit) was its first director. One of the aims of the Centre was to act as a focus for people working in “molecular genetics”; whereas some departments were strong in this field, in others individuals were trying to establish this technology in isolation. Another aim was to purchase an automated DNA sequencer that would be operated communally and be accessible to all members of the Centre. In 1992 the ABI Model 372 DNA sequencer was purchased from funds raised from a variety of sources and was housed in the Biochemistry Department.

In September 1993 Tony Robinson left Otago for an appointment in Australia and Murray Grigor (Biochemistry) became the new Director. The Centre’s activities focused on providing DNA sequencing for members and expertise for research workers on the Otago campus as well as Christchurch and Wellington. 

In October 1996 Murray Grigor left Otago and joined Ag-Research in Hamilton and James Kalmakoff became the new director of the CGR. The field of DNA sequencing was rapidly changing with new technologies being developed. An upgrade was made to the ‘ageing’ sequencer which converted it to a Model 373 STRETCH.  A successful equipment proposal was made to the Wellcome  Major Equipment Grant for an upgrade of the DNA sequencing facility and robotics.

In 1998 the ABI Model 377 XL DNA sequencer and the ABI 7700 Real Time PCR machine were purchased and installed in a purpose-built laboratory on the 8th floor of the Microbiology Building. At this point there were about 350 members as part of the CGR and the DNA sequencer was running at capacity with two technicians. 

In 2000  DNA sequencers using new capillary technology were being installed at other universities (Waikato, Massey, Auckland); this technology gave a higher throughput at less cost. The CGR was not able to convince the University Research Committee to purchase such equipment and had to settle for a second choice in capillary sequencing — the Beckman CEQ200XL. This sequencer did not work out as a viable option for servicing the wide CGR client base. The Beckman DNA machine was eventually transferred  to a Christchurch research laboratory which had specific uses for this type of sequencer. Arrangements were made for a courier service for DNA samples to be sequenced at the Allan Wilson Centre at Massey University at less cost than could be done by the CGR.

An aside: Sequencing Costs. The first whole human genome cost roughly $2.7 billion in 2003 and took almost 15 years to complete. In 2006, the cost decreased to $300,000. In 2016, the cost decreased to $1,000. Recently the DNA sequencing giant  Illumina has announced whole human genome sequencing for less than $100 and it can be completed in 26 hours.

Many of the functions of the CGR were superseded by the new entities: Genetics Otago, Centre for Reproduction and Genomics, Otago Genomics Facility High Throughput DNA Sequencing Unit and NZ Genomics Limited. Also many University Research Themes have a genomics flavour: Microbiome Otago, Allan Wilson@Otago and the Centre for Translational Cancer Research.

In 2009 James Kalmakoff retired and  Chris Brown (Biochemistry) took over, looking after what remained of the CGR.

Below are some of the newsletters and archival material of the CGR in its heyday.