CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Colleges across the Carolinas and the nation are pouring millions of dollars into a new field that promises to cure disease and unlock the secrets of evolution.
Genomics, the study of the sequence of chemical instructions that make us who we are, may be the hottest research topic to hit colleges in decades, experts say. Some economists say it may replace information technology as the next economic boom.
"We're seeing genomics centers springing up at universities all over," said Alan Guttmacher, senior clinical adviser at the National Human Genome Research Institute. "This is such an incredibly important part of the future in research, schools know they have to get involved."
At least five Carolinas colleges -- the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Wake Forest, Duke University, North Carolina State and Clemson -- have announced multimillion-dollar genomic initiatives in recent years.
Officials at those institutions say they must become leaders in the field to continue to attract top students and faculty and to capture research dollars.
Other colleges, even if they haven't created formal genomics centers, say genetics have become an essential part of almost every scientific endeavor. Students and faculty members everywhere are grappling with new scientific, ethical, legal, religious and social issues raised by the field.
Even liberal arts-focused Davidson College will offer courses in genomics and bioinformatics, the computer analysis of genomic data, for the first time this fall.
"To prepare our students for today's world, we have to keep up," said Verna Case, chair of Davidson's biology department.
About a year ago, two competing groups -- a public consortium of international scientists and a private U.S. company -- completed the colossal task of sequencing the human genome.
While the two groups are still quibbling over the details, they agreed on the order of most of the 3 billion "letters" of the biochemical code in the human genome. Strung together along strands of DNA, those letters contain the basic instructions for building and running a human body.
The media hailed the discovery as a milestone, but scientists say it was only the beginning.
"To take the database of the human genome project and convert it into useful biology is like handing someone a dictionary and telling them to become a writer," said Mark Clemens, chairman of the biology department at UNC-Charlotte.
"The genome project gives us the vocabulary, but there's still so much to learn."
The database has given ordinary researchers the ability to participate in cutting edge research, said Jeffrey Vance, director of Duke University's Genomic Research Core laboratory.
"You don't have to have a huge department with lots of expertise to do this stuff anymore," he said.
Before the database, it would take years to produce the same amount of data that now takes only seconds to download, Vance said.
That change has spurred dozens of new research projects on college campuses. A small sampling:
At Duke, faculty members are looking for genes that make people susceptible to autism, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.
At UNC-Charlotte, researchers are studying how salmonella overcomes the body's immune system, and whether a person's genetic make-up determines if the person is more susceptible to multiple sclerosis.
"Industries have targeted the most cost-effective places where they can offload the expenses of base research, and the universities see a great opportunity to attract industry dollars," said Jeff Floyd, a regional director for the Society for College and University Planning.
But it's not just about money, he said. "Genomics goes to the heart of what we're about," he said.