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During our undergraduate and graduate training in the mid-1990's, microarrays, as we know them today, were not widely used. Thus, most of the people who work at our centre today did not envision working here as part of their career path. So, what do we do at the microarray centre, and how did we get here?

A Revolution in Biology

Microarrays have revolutionised functional genomics for biologists in much the same way as the microprocessor revolutionised the world of computing science. Indeed, this new method of genetic analysis represents a fundamental paradigm shift in biology. As large-scale genome sequencing projects, such as the Human Genome Project, near completion, the research community's focus is shifting toward efforts to determine functional information about these sequenced genes. Traditionally, gene function was determined one gene at a time, but today's microarray technology enables scientists to monitor the expression of tens of thousands of genes on a single glass slide. Using microarrays, a single experiment can yield hundreds of thousands of gene expression profiles. However, the applications of microarrays also extend beyond the boundaries of basic biology into diagnostics, environmental monitoring, and pharmacology. In addition, pharmaceutical companies are now using microarrays to expedite the drug discovery process.

Spotted DNA Microarrays: What Are They?

DNA microarrays consist of thousands of spots contained on a single 1 x 3 inch glass slide, each spot representing a different gene. Each spot in this "array" of genes is about 100 microns in diameter. A typical gene expression experiment involves generating fluorescently labelled cDNA from two RNA samples. The two samples are each labelled with a different colour fluor so that the relative expression of each gene can be determined for each sample. After hybridising the fluorescently labelled cDNA to the DNA spots on the microarray, the slides are scanned by two lasers (each wavelength-specific for one fluor), which excites the fluorescent labels and causes them to emit light so that they can be detected. From this data, a relative gene expression profile for each sample is made.

Microarrays at the University Health Network

The University Health Network (UHN) Microarray Centre (MAC) is a leader in microarray technology. Our mission is to ensure that Canadian scientists have access to high-quality microarrays at an affordable price, as well as access to technical and professional support. The MAC started in 1998 at the Ontario Cancer Institute and has since grown into a core facility with 37 technical staff. We currently produce DNA microarrays representing the yeast, mouse, and human genomes (the yeast microarray has over 6000 yeast genes, the mouse microarray has over 15,000 mouse genes, and the two human microarrays have 1700 genes and over 19,000 genes). We ship over 1500 microarrays each month and provide training and support to over 280 academic labs on five continents. To date, we have produced over 40,000 microarrays, with 20,000 shipped in the last year alone.

As a core facility in an academic and hospital setting, we rely mostly on government grants to fund our research. The MAC also has a commercial arm that does contract work for biotech firms, which provides a secondary source of revenue. We have also provided alpha and beta testing services to companies that are introducing new microarray technologies, such as novel detection systems and data-analysis tools.

The MAC's Demographics

The MAC consists of 37 people with a wide range of technical backgrounds (see box below). While the majority of staff members have science degrees, most of the microarray-specific training acquired by our team has been on the job. Working at a microarray core facility is not where many of us thought we would be today, simply because microarrays were not as popular (or even around!) when we graduated.

Degrees and Number of Employees

Degrees

Number of People

College diploma

3

B.Sc., B.Sc. hon

24

M.Sc.

12

B.A.Sc.

1

B.A.

2

B. Math

1

M.B.A.

1

Ph.D.

7

B.C.S.

1

Medicine

1

 

A core facility that uses cutting edge technology is a desirable place to work for many reasons. Technicians strive to learn current research techniques to keep intellectually stimulated and improve their marketability for the future. The UHN MAC is a particularly attractive place of employment as many of the positions are permanent full-time (as opposed to contract), with competitive salaries and full benefits.

Five integral groups make up The MAC, and each group has its own area of expertise. Experienced scientists with Ph.D.s head several of the groups. Each group comprises members with a range of education levels, with the majority of the technicians having B.Sc. or M.Sc. degrees.

 

  • Production Group: Focuses its efforts on producing microarrays and refining manufacturing techniques.

     

  • Engineering Group: Applies its mechanical and electrical training to customise equipment to suit the needs of our group.

     

  • Research and Development Group: Is involved with developing new technologies and optimising existing technologies, as well as performing commercial research contracts.

     

  • Bioinformatics Team: Provides critical support to the analysis of microarray data.

     

  • In-house Biologists: Conduct research utilising microarrays manufactured at our facility.

  • Communication is a key component in developing synergy and co-ordinating projects among these large research teams and independent groups. Communication with external experts is also vital to staying on top of these rapidly evolving technologies. Increasing our knowledge base is essential to our survival as a core facility and as a resource for our users. This year we will be hosting our 3rd Annual International Microarray Symposium, a 3-day event that allows microarray users to interact with experts in the field.

    Pursuing a Job in Microarrays

    Education and lab experience are obvious assets for pursuing a career in microarray technology; however, a willingness to learn and the ability to change in this rapidly developing field are important qualities that help candidates get their foot in the door. Apart from science and engineering, bioinformatics is a vital tool in microarray analysis due to the vast amounts of data that are generated from a microarray experiment. So it is also a good idea for biologists interested in pursuing a career in the microarray/biotechnology field to be computer savvy and have a working knowledge of statistics. As microarray technologies continue to develop, the chemistry underlying the biology will increasingly come to the forefront. Thus, the field of microarray technology is not only limited to those who chose to pursue a degree or training in biology. Microarrays are a perfect example of a convergence technology where multidisciplinary fields are required to make the technology a reality and to cause it to evolve.

    Future Job Outlook: An Array of Opportunities

    As this new technology continues to develop and gain acceptance in the community, the number of jobs in the field is increasing. More universities and research institutes are establishing their own core facilities, much like The MAC. In addition, more researchers are realising the benefit of using microarrays in their research programmes. Large science companies have designed and manufactured entire microarray product lines, and supply companies have expanded their inventory to include microarray reagents. Microarrays are becoming a more commonly used tool in fields ranging from agriculture to zoology. As novel applications, such as drug screening, SNP detection, diagnostics, environmental monitoring, and food protection, are developed, there will be more demand for experienced microarray technicians in the workplace. Examples of the kinds of experiences and backgrounds that are likely to be important in the future--along with the degree you're likely to need--are given in the box below.

    Degrees and Perspective Areas

    Degree/diploma

    Area/specialty

    College diploma

    Biological research technology/biotechnology

    B.Sc., B.Sc. hon

    Molecular biology, molecular genetics, cellular biotechnology, microbiology, biochemistry, human kinetics, chemical engineering, chemistry, biology, biotechnology

    B.A.Sc.

    Electrical engineering

    B. Math

    Computer science/bioinformatics

    B.A.

    Psychology

    B.C.S.

    Computer science

    M.Sc.

    Molecular biology, biochemistry, neuroscience, oenology, zoology, molecular and cellular pharmacology, medical genetics, computer science, exercise science, mechanical engineering

    M.B.A.

    Strategic management

    Ph.D.

    Biology, microbiology/human genetics, medicinal chemistry, mechanical engineering/robotics, molecular & cell biology, computer science

    M.D.

    Medicine

    In the relatively young field of microarrays, technical positions are never mundane or boring, because there are always opportunities to evaluate and refine new techniques and protocols as they become available.

    About UHN

    If you are interested in learning more about the UHN MAC, please visit our Web site at http://www.microarrays.ca. Building on the strengths of our three remarkable hospitals--Toronto General Hospital, Toronto Western Hospital, and Princess Margaret Hospital--UHN is a leader in the Canadian health care system and a teaching partner of the University of Toronto.