Site: Biomolecular Engineering Research Institute (BERI)
6-2-3 Furuedai, Suita
Osaka 565-0874, Japan
Date Visited: 13 October 1998
WTEC Attendees: O.R. Zaborsky
The mission of the Biomolecular Engineering Research Institute (BERI) is to clarify the structures and functions of proteins, nucleic acids, and other biological molecules of importance to life processes. It is hoped that BERI will provide an understanding of the mechanisms for molecular recognition and refine the methodology for the rational design of biomolecules with novel or more efficient functions that then will have applications in the environmental, energy, industrial and medical fields. For understanding the mechanism of life, research is being carried out to clarify the character of signal receptors, enzymes, and genes, and attempting to make biomolecular research useful for mankind.
BERI was established on March 28, 1995 with the participation of 18 companies. BERI is an 8-year program, with a planned funding of about ¥15 billion, with 70% being derived from the Japan Key Technology Center (JKTC) under the direction of MITI and 30% from the participating companies. The total number of employees is close to 80 (except students).
BERI is a new organization but one that had a precursor activity, the Protein Engineering Research Institute (PERI). PERI was a 10-year program focused on protein engineering, lasting from 1986-1996, with about ¥17 billion in funding by JKTC and 14 companies.
Current management includes M. Furukawa, President (Chairman of Mitsubishi Chemicals), and Y. Shimura, Research Director (Professor Emeritus of Kyoto University). BERI, according to discussions, is managed by industry, with all intellectual property rights belonging to the institute.
This department is focused on the analysis of the mechanisms of molecular interactions. Current research is focused specifically on: (1) the structure and function of the receptors for neuronal signaling molecules; (2) cloning and analysis of signaling molecules for growth factors; (3) analysis of the control mechanisms of gene expression during differentiation, and (4) identification of DNA polymerases and nucleases. These enzymes are important for DNA replication and recombination. An interest in extreme thermophiles is being pursued in the department. The current personnel associated with this department include 13 research scientists, four postdoctoral fellows, and 10 research assistants.
As the name implies, this department is focused on bioorganic chemical interests dealing with enzymes, receptors, and innovative materials. It specializes in the restructuring of biomolecular systems into lower molecular weight substances and the creation of materials with new functions. This department is conducting research to understand biology and then use the information to produce new biomolecules that will have application to medical problems and industry. A strategy for efficiently mimicking and controlling the evolutionary process in vitro has been developed to create a new class of biomolecules with desired functions. In addition, this department analyzes the structure and function relationships of "natural" biomolecules and reproduces their functions in compounds of much smaller size. By combining chemical and biological technologies, it is stated that this department opens new paths to design and synthesize innovative materials. In keeping with the chemical focus, this department's philosophy is that "everything in biology or medicine has a chemical basis." The personnel associated with this department include seven research scientists, one postdoctoral fellow, and five research assistants.
This department is focused on determining the structures of many important biomolecules by using the most advanced technologies in X-ray diffraction, atomic force microscopy, cryo-electron microscopy, and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy. It is hoped that knowledge about these structures at an atomic level significantly enhances the understanding of biomolecules and how they function. This knowledge, in turn, is essential for rational design of novel molecules, such as inhibitors or activators that will solve environmental and medical problems. To date, this department has elucidated the 3-dimensional structures of proteins essential for DNA replication and repair, photoenergy conversion, and signal transduction in cells. The current personnel associated with this department include 10 research scientists, three postdoctoral fellows, and seven research assistants.
This department is focused on a relatively new but important field, namely bioinformatics, which harnesses computers to analyze complex and vast databases in biology. Research is focused on computational analysis of genetic and structural databases that will advance the understanding of the interdependence of structure, function, and evolution. This department is also interested in how molecules are able to recognize and interact with each other. A major objective of research is to establish basic techniques and theories and set the foundation for general application of bioinformatics to many medical and industrial problems. The current personnel associated with this department include eight research scientists, one postdoctoral fellow, and one research assistant.
The interrelationship of these four departments is shown in Figure C.1.
Fig. C.1. Research departments at BERI.
BERI research can be divided into three major research themes: (1) analysis of the mechanisms of biomolecular interactions (molecular recognition), (2) restructuring of biomolecular systems into lower molecular substances and the creation of materials with new functionality, and (3) development of biomolecular engineering core technology. The latter includes structural analysis and analysis of molecular recognition and theoretical and database analysis.
The full complement of personnel also includes 18 scientists from industry (included in the above department count), 14 graduate students, and an administrative staff of 13. Twenty of the research scientists are permanently employed by BERI. Foreign postdoctoral fellows are from the United States, Russia, China and France. Graduate students collaborate with BERI staff and come from local universities (e.g., Osaka University).
Corporate participating organizations include the following:
BERI research has been quite productive as judged by its appearance in some of the best journals: Nature, Science, J Am Chem Soc, Cell, and J. Molecular Biology.
Management has recognized the dual nature of research satisfying industry and also the university reviewers. BERI's objective is to produce results in the form of patents and also peer-reviewed publications in well recognized journals.
BERI has exceptional resources for conducting research derived from its physical facilities (laboratories, support structures, advanced instrumentation and equipment), partly acquired from its predecessor organization, PERI.
BERI has attracted some solid young university professors desiring to conduct quality research in an institute setting (as opposed to staying in a university). This is due to the students' belief that they can accomplish more in a shorter time even though the risk is higher (less employment certainty due to the termination of BERI in a few years).
BERI's current management is experienced and comes from the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. As such, it is quite knowledgeable about research and the time required for its translation into commercial results.