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Trading Labcoats for Laptops

A shift is taking place in science as some investigators move away from the wet lab to the dry, Science's Robert Service observes, and the classic scientists' life of labcoats and gloves, burners and beakers, for many is becoming a life spent shifting between mobile streams of data, the flash drive, and the laptop.

Service sees Stanford's Atul Butte as a pioneer in this new world, in which analyzing data in a coffee shop can be just powerful an activity as working hands-on collecting samples in clinics, in forest soil, or in subs at the bottom of the sea.

Butte has used publicly available sources to survey volumes of genomic information and look at clinical data on drugs to discover that a therapeutic for ulcers may be useful in treating lung cancer, and that an epileptic compound can be used to combat inflammatory bowel disease.

Butte doesn't spend his time "growing cells and sequencing DNA," Service notes. Instead, he usually works on a Sony laptop, although he does rely on Stanford's large computer cluster and other supercomputers. He also is free to easily move from one topic of investigation to another, following trails in data looking for the next powerful insight.

"I'm like a kid in a candy store," Butte tells Service. "There is so much we can do."

And he is not alone. The iPlant Collaborative is an NSF-backed project that is enabling plant biologists to analyze genomic plant data without wielding a spade or getting bug-bitten. And NIH plans to pump $96 million into new big data analysis initiatives.

Service says that the dry lab, the laptop, cloud storage, and the supercomputer are not going to replace the wet lab, or the need for someone to get their hands dirty, but that the two approaches now "dovetail with one another like never before, each propelling the other forward."