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National Research Council Calls for 'New Biology' Initiative

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The National Research Council today called for a national, federally-funded, decade-long effort to harness new and coming biological technologies and information to create a "New Biology" initiative that would integrate computer science, physics, engineering, chemistry, mathematics, and other sciences to address issues of global concern.

NRC today proposed in a report spending at least 10 years and expanding federal biology funding to use the massive amounts of data generated from recent biological advances in an interdisciplinary and interagency initiative.

The report, "A New Biology for the 21st Century: Ensuring the United States Leads the Coming Biology Revolution," was published by the National Academy of Sciences.

The aim of the plan is to "accelerate new breakthroughs that could solve some of society's most pressing problems — particularly in the areas of food, environment, energy, and health," NRC said today.

The report, which was commissioned in July 2008 by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy, recommends pulling together distinct biological research to meet four broadly-sketched initial challenge areas including personalized medicine, food security, biofuels, and environmental monitoring.

"A new biology initiative would be a daring addition to the nation's research portfolio, but we believe the potential benefits are remarkable and far-reaching," Phillip Sharp, who is institute professor for the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a co-chair on the committee that wrote the report, said in a statement.

"We need to set big goals, and let the problems drive the science," added Thomas Connelly, Sharp's fellow committee co-chair and an executive VP at E.I. DuPont de Nemours.

The committee of 16 biology, engineering, and computational scientists said that they developed these 'new biology' notions after asking a number of questions about how to use new advances in biology, particularly advances that generate massive amounts of data with "largely unanticipated payoffs," such as the Human Genome Project.

They asked a number of questions regarding what areas would near-term investment and be most likely to lead to substantial long-term pay-off; what are there high-risk, high pay-off areas that deserve serious consideration for seed funding; what fundamental biological questions are ready for major advances in understanding; and how can a fundamental understanding of living systems reduce uncertainty about the future of life on earth and improve human health and welfare.

One of the initial goals the commission developed for the new biology initiatives is "to understand individual health" through personalized medicine. The report suggests that new biology can make it possible to provide individually predictive surveillance and care.

"Between the starting point of an individual's genome sequence and the endpoint of that individual's health is a web of interacting networks of staggering complexity," NRC said in a report summary. The new movement "can accelerate fundamental understanding of the systems that underlie health and the development of tools" that can advance individualized, predictive medicine, NRC said.

The committee members offered four recommendations for the government to consider including "a national initiative to accelerate the emergence and growth of the New Biology to achieve solutions to societal challenges in food, energy, environment, and health." They also suggest that the National New Biology Initiative should be at least 10 years long, be an interagency effort, and be funded in addition to current research budgets.

In addition, the group recommended that within the new initiative priority be given to developing new information technologies and sciences "that will be critical to the success of the New Biology."

Lastly, the committee recommended that the new initiative provide resources to support new interdisciplinary curricula, such as graduate training programs and educator training, which will help "create and support New Biologists."

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