Early this fall, the US Department of Energy released a roadmap to guide its investments in biological research for the coming years, highlighting in particular the importance to this field of high-performance computing. In other good news for systems biology scientists, part of the roadmap provides for building four new research and production facilities with specialties in protein characterization and molecular tagging; molecular imaging; proteomic analysis; and cell system modeling.
While the official 300-some-page document says the process of planning this roadmap began three years ago, Ari Patrinos, director of the Office of Biological and Environmental Research at DOE, says the earliest tidings of this project came in 1998 “when we were seeing the light at the end of the human genome tunnel.” Ever since then, he says, the DOE staff has been trying to figure out its role in the future of systems biology.
That role — figuring prominently in biology but with a fairly minimal component for health issues — has come into focus as investing in the leading edge of microbial research for bioremediation and “clean biotech” goals such as carbon sequestration and clean energy production, Patrinos says. JGI, which has made its name in microbial sequencing and recently got involved in ecogenomics, will continue those operations.
Researchers who spend their time maintaining the underlying compute infrastructure for systems biology applications will be gratified to see that computing is an essential part of the DOE’s plan. “The new era of biology is as much about computing as it is about biology,” write Patrinos and Robin Staffin, acting director for DOE’s Office of Advanced Scientific Computing Resarch, in the preface. The DOE’s computing office has joined the biology office in a partnership to make this roadmap a reality, Patrinos says. To that end, the program “will create an integrated computational environment linking experimental data of unprecedented quality and dimensionality with theory, modeling, and simulation,” according to the roadmap.
DOE went to great lengths to ensure community participation in the development of this plan — Patrinos says some 850 researchers from more than 250 institutions have been involved in discussions about this guide. Still, he knows that not everyone will be as excited as he is to see its release; many researchers balk at the long-term roadmaps, arguing that they stifle curiosity-driven science. But Patrinos, who counts himself as one of the people who in the past would’ve criticized a plan like this, says that as science has become increasingly interdisciplinary, the chance “eureka!” moments are getting fewer. “There is a way by which you can develop a roadmap, having a well thought out series of pathways that you identify and then make strategic investments, fully expecting that several will lead to dead ends,” he says, pointing out that DOE grants “allow a lot of wiggle room” for scientists to pursue their own ideas.
In addition to giving DOE guidance for program management in the coming years, the roadmap serves another important function: “I think this particular roadmap will … convince our sponsors and political masters that biology has come of age. It’s sufficiently mature to think ahead and plan ahead,” Patrinos says. “That gives them reasons to invest in us.”
— Meredith Salisbury