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Bioinformatics In Europe and US, public biofx funding heats up

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The Experimental Network for Functional Integration, recently funded by the Commission of the European Union, got its name from a play on words. The acronym for the long-awaited bioinformatics network, ENFIN, means “finally” in French and reflects a sigh of relief from the bioinformaticists involved. In the United States, computational biologists may also be feeling relieved — public funding from the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institutes of Health has just heated up. Looks like it’s finally a good time to be a computational biologist.

ENFIN, funded with 9 million total for five years, is a virtual institute aimed at making computational systems biology accessible to bench scientists throughout Europe and beyond. It brings together prominent computational and experimental biology labs — 20 groups across 17 institutions in 13 countries — in a network that will provide access to public datasets; analysis and integration tools for individual labs; and new challenges to scientists in experimental biology laboratories. That last group will “challenge and inspire the bioinformatics that is happening in the analysis lab,” predicts ENFIN coordinator Ewan Birney. “They will start to collect the right sort of data at the same time they are challenging the bioinformaticians to come up with the tools to make sense of the data.” The network’s products will be applicable to any area of biological research, but a strong experimental focus will be on understanding the regulation of cell division.

Meanwhile, the NIH recently issued
$56 million of funding for five years to establish three new National Centers for Biomedical Computing: at the University of Michigan, which will develop and integrate analytical and modeling technologies to handle data in repositories and the literature; Columbia, where scientists will build a homogeneous framework for the comprehensive mapping and analysis of molecular and cellular interactions; and Stanford, which aims to produce innovative technology to create, disseminate, and manage biomedical information.

In November, the EPA awarded $9 million total over five years to establish two bioinformatics centers: the Carolina Environmental Bioinformatics Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the Research Center for Environmental Bioinformatics and Computational Toxicology at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. The centers will augment EPA’s research at the year-old National Center for Computational Toxicology, which is using new technologies to identify toxicity pathways, prioritize chemicals for study, and improve risk assessment.

Robert Kavlock, director of the NCCT, says that to deal with the enormous amounts of data generated by current bioinformatics tools, the agency needed to partner with institutions until it can establish expertise internally. “Here at the EPA, because we are just coming into these new technologies, our staff wasn’t trained in bioinformatics,” he says.

— Kate O’Rourke
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