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EC Awards 20M Euros to Support Development Of EBI s Next-Generation Bioinformatics Tools

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Last week, the European Bioinformatics Institute received its largest single funding boost from the European Commission. The EBI and 25 of its collaborators will receive almost 20 million euros ($17.5 million) over three years from the EC.

The EC funding will be a substantial addition to the EBI’s core funding, which has historically lagged behind bioinformatics investments in the US and Japan.

Graham Cameron, joint head of the EBI, told BioInform that he regards the EC grant as “a substantial vote of confidence in the organization.”

The total expected EC funding over three years is 19.4 million euros, of which 12.9 million euros are expected to be granted to the EBI, with the remainder distributed among the EBI’s 25 academic and commercial partners from 11 different countries.

The funding is earmarked for four specific projects: DESPRAD (Development and Establishing of Standards and Prototype Repository for DNA-Array Data), EMSD (European Macromolecular Structure Database), IntAct (a public repository for protein-protein interaction data), and Integr8 (a project to build an integrated layer for the exploitation of genomic and proteomics data).

The EBI expects to hire 30-40 new bioinformaticists to support the projects.

Cameron said the EBI has had some seed funding for the DESPRAD and EMSD programs, but the new grant will serve to get the projects off the ground. DESPRAD covers the EBI’s ArrayExpress database, a public repository for microarray data whose development was stalled last year due to lack of funds. The total EC award for this project is 4.7 million euros, of which the EBI will receive 3.1 million euros.

EMSD is intended to be the European equivalent of the PIR resource in the US, Cameron said. The EBI will collaborate with the Research Collaboratory for Structural Bioinformatics, which runs the PDB. EMSD will receive 6.1 million euros from the EC, of which 4.8 million euros will go to the EBI.

The remaining two projects are new to the EBI, although the IntAct protein-protein database will be bundled with a similar project in progress at the Max Planck Institute. The EC will grant IntAct a total of 1.8 million euros, with 0.5 euros slated for the EBI. The final project, Integr8, will enable all the EBI’s data to be explored simultaneously by scientists, Cameron said. Integr8 will receive 6.7 million euros under the new funding, of which 4.3 million euros will go to the EBI.

“With the context of the already funded information resources at the EBI, that now gives us an impressively comprehensive set of biomolecular information,” said Cameron.

The EBI currently receives most of its funding from its parent organization, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory. The EMBL nucleotide sequence database, for example, is wholly funded by EMBL. SwissProt and Trembl are funded by EMBL as well as the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics and industrial users of the data, and Ensembl is funded by EMBL and the Wellcome Trust.

In November, EMBL approved an unprecedented increase in the EBI’s funding, allocating 50 million euros over the next five years to the institute. However, the 8.4 million euros ($7.3 million) the EBI sees in 2001 still pales in comparison to the NCBI’s 2001 budget, which the EMBL Council estimated to be $42 million.

The EC grant is a welcome boost, but the EBI still faces the challenge of keeping up with bioinformatics budgets in the US. While the public investment in European bioinformatics has doubled over the past five years, the NCBI has increased its budget fourfold.

But Cameron sees the latest grant as a sign that the importance of bioinformatics is becoming clear to the EC.

“In the days of high-throughput science that disseminates its findings in electronic form, we will have to face up to that fact that that creates a need for a kind of secure institution as custodian of that electronic record of science,” Cameron said. “If you’re going to spend billions on projects that create an electronic record, then you’re going to have to spend a few million to get somebody to look after that record and disseminate it.”

“It is imperative for Europe to ensure its competitiveness in this field if we do not want to become a ‘customer’ for technologies developed elsewhere and a ‘consumer’ of products and services provided by our competitors,” said Peter Kind, acting director of health research at the EC.

— BT

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