The institute was founded in 1983 by Professor Rudolf Raff to provide support for basic research in molecular biology at Indiana University. The motivation for its founding was simple. By the early 1980s it was becoming increasingly clear that university departments alone could not bear the costs associated with organizing and carrying out state-of-the-art research. "For example, the cost of a DNA sequencer is enormous"says Raff. "And not only equipment is expensive. Operating costs are also very high. We go through thousands of dollars a month just in lab supplies."
The institute has raised funds for the purchase of the DNA sequencer and other equipment vital to DNA research. It also operates a confocal microscope, an insect cell culture facility, a large-scale fermentation unit, and will soon have an electron microscope facility. The institute assists the Department of Biology's computer center by providing a computer workstation devoted to nucleic acid and protein sequencing. As the institute has expanded its facilities it has, in a synergistic interaction, attracted even more of the funding that makes such facilities possible. Funding from private industry for research projects, which at the time of the institute's inception amounted to only a few thousand dollars, is approaching the million-dollar mark each year. Companies such as Eli Lilly and Boehringer-Manheim also have provided fellowship funding for graduate students.
Yet the funds that are raised are only a means to an important end: the support of basic and applied research in molecular biology, in turn crucial to educating the next generation of life scientists. Examples of recent industry-funded research include Milton Taylor's work with Amgen, Inc., on a synthetic interferon for use against the hepatitis-C virus; George Hegeman's work on the feasibility of using microbes to clean sites contaminated by chlorinated petroleum spills; Andrew Ellington's study of the potential of RNA molecules to block cellular interactions with viruses; and Keith Clay's study of the role of fungal endophyte parasites in the prevention of grass diseases. More basic research, such as that carried out by Alexandra Newton on the role of protein kinase C in the reception of light in the eye, or Peter Cherbas' study of steroid hormones and their role in gene regulation, receives funding from the federal government, as well as from industry.
The institute holds an annual symposium on molecular biology that brings together researchers on a given theme. The title of last year's symposium was "Origins and Evolution of Animal Body Plans." In addition, the institute assures the supply of future researchers in molecular disciplines not only by providing training and employment for postdoctoral fellows and current graduate students, but also by reaching into the school system to offer awards to outstanding high school seniors.