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The NIH Almanac

National Institute of General Medical Sciences

Mission | Important Events | Legislative Chronology | Director | Programs | Photo Gallery


The National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) supports basic research that increases understanding of biological processes and lays the foundation for advances in disease diagnosis, treatment and prevention. NIGMS-funded scientists investigate how living systems work at a range of levels, from molecules and cells to tissues, whole organisms and populations. The Institute also supports research in certain clinical areas, primarily those that affect multiple organ systems. To assure the vitality and continued productivity of the research enterprise, NIGMS provides leadership in training the next generation of scientists, in enhancing the diversity of the scientific workforce, and in developing research capacities throughout the country.

NIGMS is organized into divisions that support research and research training in a range of scientific fields.

NIGMS was established in 1962. In Fiscal Year 2014, the Institute's budget is $2.359 billion. The vast majority of this money goes into local economies through grants to scientists at universities, medical schools, hospitals and other research institutions throughout the country. At any given time, NIGMS supports more than 4,500 research grants—approximately 10.5 percent of the grants funded by NIH as a whole. NIGMS also supports approximately 26 percent of the trainees who receive assistance from NIH.

The Institute places great emphasis on supporting investigator-initiated research grants and promotes the collaborative approaches increasingly needed to solve complex problems in biomedical science. In addition to funding a limited number of research center grants in selected fields, NIGMS supports centers that build research capacities in states that have historically received low levels of NIH funding. The Institute also supports several important scientific resources, including the NIGMS Human Genetic Cell Repository and the Protein Data Bank.

NIGMS research training programs recognize the interdisciplinary nature of biomedical research and stress approaches that cut across disciplinary and departmental lines. Such experience prepares trainees to pursue creative research careers in a wide variety of areas.

Certain NIGMS training programs address areas in which there are particularly compelling needs. One of these, the Medical Scientist Training Program, produces investigators who hold the combined M.D.-Ph.D. degree and are well trained in both basic science and clinical research. Other programs train scientists to conduct research in rapidly growing areas like biotechnology and at the interfaces between fields such as chemistry and biology and behavioral and biomedical sciences.

NIGMS also has a Postdoctoral Research Associate Program, in which postdoctoral scientists receive training in pharmacology in NIH or Food and Drug Administration laboratories.

NIGMS houses the NIH Office of Emergency Care Research, which coordinates and fosters basic, clinical and transitional emergency care research and research training across NIH.

Important Events in NIGMS History

July 16, 1958—The Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) approved establishment of the Division of General Medical Sciences.

October 17, 1962—Congress authorized establishment of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

January 30, 1963—The HEW Secretary approved establishment of NIGMS.

October 8, 1963—The National Advisory General Medical Sciences Council held its first meeting.

October 13, 1982—NIGMS celebrated its 20th anniversary by establishing the DeWitt Stetten, Jr., Lecture. Dr. David S. Hogness, Stanford University, gave the first lecture.

October 1, 1989—Administration of the Minority Biomedical Research Support Program was transferred to NIGMS from the NIH Division of Research Resources.

December 23, 2011—Administration of the Institutional Development Award program was transferred to NIGMS from the former National Center for Research Resources, along with NCRR’s biomedical technology programs.

NIGMS Legislative Chronology

October 17, 1962—Public Law 87-838 authorized the U.S. Surgeon General to establish an institute to conduct and support research and research training in the general or basic medical sciences and in related natural or behavioral sciences that have significance for two or more other institutes of NIH, or that lie outside the general areas of responsibility of any other institute.

Biographical Sketch of NIGMS Director Jon R. Lorsch, Ph.D.

Jon R. Lorsch, Ph.D., became the director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences in August 2013.

In this position, Lorsch oversees the Institute's $2.359 billion budget, which funds basic research in the areas of cell biology, biophysics, genetics, developmental biology, pharmacology, physiology, biological chemistry, biomedical technology, bioinformatics and computational biology. NIGMS supports more than 4,500 research grants—about 10.5 percent of those funded by NIH as a whole—as well as a substantial amount of research training and programs designed to increase the diversity of the biomedical research workforce.

Lorsch came to NIGMS from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where he was a professor in the Department of Biophysics and Biophysical Chemistry. He joined the Johns Hopkins faculty in 1999 and became a full professor in 2009.

A leader in RNA biology, Lorsch studies the initiation of translation, a major step in controlling how genes are expressed. When this process goes awry, viral infection, neurodegenerative diseases and cancer can result. To dissect the mechanics of translation initiation, Lorsch and collaborators developed a yeast-based system and a wide variety of biochemical and biophysical methods. The work also has led to efforts to control translation initiation through chemical reagents, such as drugs.

NIGMS supported Lorsch's research from 2000-2013. He also received grants from NIH’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and National Institute of Mental Health, as well as from other funding organizations.

Lorsch is as passionate about education as he is about research. During his tenure at Johns Hopkins, he helped reform the curricula for graduate and medical education, spearheaded the development of the Center for Innovation in Graduate Biomedical Education, and launched a program offering summer research experiences to local high school students, many from groups that are underrepresented in the biomedical and behavioral sciences. In addition, he advised dozens of undergraduate and graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

Lorsch received a B.A. in chemistry from Swarthmore College in 1990 and a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Harvard University in 1995, where he worked in the laboratory of Jack Szostak, Ph.D. He conducted postdoctoral research at Stanford University in the laboratory of Daniel Herschlag, Ph.D.

Lorsch’s other activities have included membership on the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s mentoring committee, the RNA Society’s board of directors and NIH review committees.

NIGMS Directors

Name In Office from To
Clinton C. Powell July 1962 July 1964
Frederick L. Stone August 1964 April 1970
DeWitt Stetten, Jr. October 1970 August 1974
Ruth L. Kirschstein September 1974 July 1993
Marvin Cassman (Acting) July 1993 August 1996
Marvin Cassman August 1996 May 2002
Judith H. Greenberg (Acting) May 2002 November 2003
Jeremy M. Berg November 2003 July 2011
Judith H. Greenberg (Acting) July 2011 July 2013
Jon R. Lorsch, Ph.D. August 2013 Present

Major Programs

Division of Biomedical Technology, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology

The Division of Biomedical Technology, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology (BBCB) supports studies in and tools for understanding complex biological systems. The research and training it funds join biology with the computer sciences, engineering, mathematics and physics. The long-term goals of the division are to leverage data and technologies to answer fundamental questions about biology and to develop a more robust computing infrastructure for the biomedical research community. The division also defines NIGMS' needs for database development and applications as well as for a broad spectrum of biomedical technologies, techniques and methodologies. It collaborates with other NIH components and Federal agencies External Web Site Policy in developing policies in these areas. The division has two components: the Biomedical Technology Branch and the Bioinformatics and Computational Biology Branch.

Biomedical Technology

This branch supports research to discover, create and develop innovative technologies for biomedical research. Areas of interest include, but are not limited to, high-performance computing, molecular imaging, structural biology and proteomics. The branch provides this support through biomedical technology research centers, a research network External Web Site Policy, instrument development for biomedical applications, investigator-initiated research grants and small business grants.

Bioinformatics and Computational Biology

The bioinformatics component of this branch supports research to develop algorithms and tools for managing, visualizing and analyzing scientific data sets. It also identifies Institute needs for database development and creates opportunities for maintaining the most critical ones, and it encourages the adoption of software engineering best practices and rigorous statistical analyses in NIGMS-funded research.

The computational biology component of the branch supports research in modeling, such as the Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study (MIDAS), and systems biology, such as the National Centers for Systems Biology. The branch also fosters the use of systems biology approaches to study complex systems from the subcellular to physiological and population scales, the development of modeling and simulation tools across NIGMS mission areas, and the advancement of methods for analyzing and disseminating computational models.

Division of Cell Biology and Biophysics

The Division of Cell Biology and Biophysics seeks greater understanding of the structure and function of cells, cellular components, and the biological macromolecules that make up these components. The research it supports ranges from studies of single molecules to work in structural genomics and proteomics. The long-term goal of the division is to better understand the basic structures and processes in living cells. This information may lay the foundation for ways to prevent, treat, and cure diseases that result from disturbed or abnormal cellular activity. The division has 3 components: the Biophysics Branch, the Cell Biology Branch, and the Structural Genomics and Proteomics Technology Branch.

Biophysics Branch

This branch supports studies in the areas of biophysics, a discipline that uses techniques derived from the physical sciences to examine the structures and properties of biological molecules. Areas of emphasis in biophysical research include the determination of the structures of proteins and nucleic acids; studies of the physical features that determine macromolecular conformation; the analysis of macromolecular interactions and of ligand-macromolecular interactions; bioinformatics as it relates to protein and nucleic acid structure; the development of physical methodology for the analysis of molecular structure; and the development and use of theoretical methods to investigate biological systems. Other research interests include the development and refinement of instruments needed to conduct research in the areas described above. These include nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, X-ray crystallography and other scattering techniques, optical spectroscopy and other forms of microscopy. This branch also supports the development of new bioanalytical methods and biomaterials.

Cell Biology Branch

This branch supports general studies on the molecular and biochemical activities of cells and subcellular components, as well as on the role of cellular dysfunction in disease. Emphasis is placed on research with applications to a range of cell types, model systems, or disease states, as well as research that does not fall within the disease-oriented mission of one of the other NIH institutes or centers. Representative studies include those on plasma and intracellular membranes, receptors, and signal transduction mechanisms; the structure and function of the cytoskeleton; cell motility; the regulation of protein and membrane synthesis and the activation of cell growth; subcellular organelles; cell division; and lipid biochemistry.

Structural Genomics and Proteomics Technology Branch

This branch supports studies that take a genomics or computational approach to determining protein structures and functions. Such research includes the development of high-throughput methods for protein structure determination, bioinformatics as it relates to the analysis of protein structures en masse, and the development of mass spectroscopy and other tools for the rapid analysis of biological molecules. The branch is responsible for monitoring the research centers and research grants associated with the NIGMS Protein Structure Initiative (PSI). This responsibility also includes developing a database of model structures and a repository for the distribution of materials resulting from the PSI.

Division of Genetics and Developmental Biology

The Division of Genetics and Developmental Biology supports studies directed toward gaining a better understanding of the cellular and molecular mechanisms that underlie inheritance and development. The results of these studies form the foundation for advances in diagnosing, preventing, treating, and curing human genetic and developmental disorders. Most of the projects supported by the division make use of model organisms, which speed advances in understanding human biological processes.

The division consists of the Genetic Mechanisms Branch and the Developmental and Cellular Processes Branch.

Genetic Mechanisms Branch

This branch focuses on DNA and on the flow of information from genetic material (DNA or RNA) to protein. The branch supports mechanistic studies of DNA replication and repair; synthesis of DNA, RNA, and protein; regulation of DNA replication, transcription of coding and non-coding RNA, RNA processing and protein synthesis; and interactions among these basic cellular processes. The emphasis is on the general principles governing these processes rather than on the expression of specific genes in relation to organismal phenotypes or disease. Consistent with its focus on DNA, the branch also supports studies of population genetics and evolution.

Developmental and Cellular Processes Branch

This branch focuses on the genetic and biochemical pathways that cells utilize in development and in normal physiological processes. The research supported by the branch spans the spectrum from the genetic basis of development and cell function to biochemical signaling pathways that underlie normal cell physiology. The branch supports studies of cell cycle control; mechanisms of cell death; regulation of cell growth, differentiation, and homeostasis; adaptive responses to stress; stem cell biology; microbial symbiotic relationships and community ecology; developmental genetics; neurogenetics and the genetics of behavior; chromosome structure and epigenetic regulation of gene expression; and the genetic basis of human biology.

Along with its research and research training activities, the division supports the Human Genetic Cell Repository, which maintains and distributes cell lines and DNA samples—from people with and without genetic disorders—to research scientists.

Division of Pharmacology, Physiology, and Biological Chemistry

The Division of Pharmacology, Physiology, and Biological Chemistry supports a broad spectrum of research and research training aimed at improving the molecular-level understanding of fundamental biological processes and discovering approaches to their control. Research supported by the division takes a multifaceted approach to problems in pharmacology, physiology, biochemistry, and biorelated chemistry that are either very basic in nature or that have implications for more than one disease area. The goals of supported research include an improved understanding of drug action and mechanisms of anesthesia; pharmacogenetics/pharmacogenomics and mechanisms underlying individual responses to drugs; new methods and targets for drug discovery; advances in natural products synthesis; an enhanced understanding of biological catalysis; a greater knowledge of metabolic regulation and fundamental physiological processes; and the integration and application of basic physiological, pharmacological, and biochemical research to clinical issues in anesthesia, clinical pharmacology, and trauma and burn injury. Among the division's leading areas of interest are quantitative and systems pharmacology, improved synthesis and availability of complex carbohydrates, and genomic studies of natural product biosynthesis. There are 2 components in this division: the Biochemistry and Biorelated Chemistry Branch and the Pharmacological and Physiological Sciences Branch.

Biochemistry and Biorelated Chemistry Branch

This branch supports basic research in areas of biochemistry, such as enzyme catalysis and regulation, bioenergetics and redox biochemistry, and glycoconjugates. It also supports research in areas of biorelated chemistry, such as organic synthesis and methodology, as well as bioinorganic and medicinal chemistry. Examples of biochemical investigations include studies of the chemical basis of the regulation and catalytic properties of enzymes, intermediary metabolism, the chemical and physical properties of the cellular systems for electron transport and energy transduction, and the biosynthesis and structure of carbohydrate-containing macromolecules. Examples of chemical investigations include the development of strategies for natural products synthesis, studies of the structure and function of small molecules, the chemistry of metal ions in biological systems, the development of novel medicinal agents or mimics of macromolecular function, and the creation of new synthetic methodologies. The branch also supports studies in biotechnology. This work focuses on the development of biological catalysts, including living organisms, for the production of useful chemical compounds, medicinal or diagnostic agents, or probes of biological phenomena.

Pharmacological and Physiological Sciences Branch

This branch supports research in pharmacology, anesthesiology, and the physiological sciences. Studies range from the molecular to the organismal level, and can be clinical in nature. In the pharmacological sciences and anesthesiology, important areas being studied are the effects of drugs on the body and the body's effects on drugs, as well as how these effects vary from individual to individual. This includes traditional investigations of the absorption, transport, distribution, metabolism, biotransformation, and excretion of drugs, as well as drug delivery strategies and determinants of bioavailability. It also includes a newer focus on pharmacogenetics/pharmacogenomics, linking phenotype to genotype in drug action. Understanding the mechanisms of drug interactions with receptors and signal transduction mechanisms is another major focus of this section. This includes studies of soluble and membrane-bound receptors and channels, secondary and tertiary messenger systems, mediator molecules, and their regulation and pharmacological manipulation. Examples of studies in the physiological sciences include basic and clinical investigations directed toward improving understanding of the total body response to injury, including the biochemical and physiological changes induced by trauma. Research supported in this section includes studies on the etiology of post-traumatic sepsis and the mechanisms of immunosuppression, wound healing, and hypermetabolism following injury. This section also supports research in basic molecular immunobiology, which focuses on using cells of the immune system to study fundamental cellular and molecular mechanisms.

Division of Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity

The Division of Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity supports programs that foster research training and the development of a strong and diverse biomedical research workforce. The division funds research training, career development, diversity and capacity-building activities through a variety of programs at the undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral, faculty and institutional levels.

The division offers support in several areas: undergraduate and predoctoral training, postdoctoral training and capacity building.

Undergraduate and Predoctoral Training

This branch supports research training programs for undergraduate and predoctoral students, including those from populations that have traditionally been underrepresented in the biomedical and behavioral research workforce.

Postdoctoral Training

This branch supports research training, fellowships and career development programs for postdoctoral scientists. It also supports studies on interventions that promote student interest in research careers, and it provides supplements to research grants that promote scientific workforce diversity by offering research experiences for students at all levels, from high school through the postdoctoral stage.

Capacity Building

This branch offers a number of programs aimed at increasing the research capabilities of institutions and the research competitiveness of faculty at institutions with substantial enrollments of students from underrepresented groups and those in states that have historically not received significant levels of research funding from NIH.

Division of Extramural Activities

The Division of Extramural Activities is responsible for the grant-related activities of the Institute, including the receipt, referral, and advisory council review of applications as well as grant funding and management. It maintains an overview of the Institute's scientific and financial status and advises the NIGMS director and other key staff on policy matters and on the planning, development, and scientific administration of Institute research and training programs. The division recommends budget allocations for the various NIGMS programs. It also acts as a liaison with other NIH components for activities relating to grant application assignments and foreign grants.

This page last reviewed on July 17, 2014

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