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ELIXIR Set for Implementation Following EU Funding Announcement

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NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – The European Life-science Infrastructure for Biological Information (ELIXIR) effort will see an influx of €19 million ($21.1 million) from the European Union starting later this year, according to a recent announcement.

The funds, obtained through a prioritized Horizon 2020 funding call, will support the so-called EXCELERATE initiative for implementing ELIXIR programs. Details of the grant agreement are still being hammered out, but the funding is expected to kick in in September and run for four years.

The funding infusion underscores the importance that European Commission and member countries place on the bioinformatics and life sciences initiative, noted Andrew Smith, ELIXIR's senior external relations officer and member of the organization's directorate.

Smith said the grant will help to "implement and fast track ELIXIR" — a priority for the European Commission and the countries of Europe.

Previous funding from the European Commission has largely gone toward legal and administrative aspects of the organization as well as efforts to integrate ELIXIR with other research infrastructures, he explained.

In contrast, the newly announced ELIXIR-EXCELERATE grant provides the opportunity to coordinate access to bioinformatics services and resources for researchers and other users.

"This is the first major [EU] grant to help implement ELIXIR," Smith told GenomeWeb. "We have had operational funding before, but never for ELIXIR as a single entity and never on this scale."

A large focus of the EXCELERATE effort will be in coordinating resources for scientists and bioinformaticians, including platforms to link up data, standards, tools, training, and computing resources within Europe.

The funding will also support four "use" cases focused on rare diseases, human data, marine metagenomics, and plant phenotype-genotype work. The team plans to look at the types of data, resources, and standards that are available in each of these areas as well as the feasibility of applying them in a research setting.

Finally, the organization plans to invest in capacity building in member countries, including support for training, infrastructure, operations, and the establishment of ELIXIR legal entities within each jurisdiction.

ELIXIR has been in the works as a public initiative for nearly a decade and was added to a European roadmap for prioritizing research infrastructure programs in 2006. The intergovernmental organization was deemed an independent legal entity in late 2013, marking its official launch.

The broad goal of the organization is to develop strategies for bringing together the rapidly growing reams of DNA sequence and other molecular data being generated by European research groups, Smith explained.

"The data aren't just coming from one single site. They're coming from thousands of labs across Europe, which makes it more difficult for any single institute to be able to store all of this data," he said.

In general, ELIXIR is financed through a mixed model that includes investments by its member states in Europe as well as funding from grants such as EXCELERATE, Smith said. "We run a public data infrastructure that's funded through the member states, which see the value of trying to provide these services that other companies or other academic researchers can use."

"ELIXIR isn't about doing research into bioinformatics," he added, "it's about trying to coordinate the bioinformatics services that already exist in Europe so they can be more useful, more helpful for researchers."

ELIXIR is currently comprised of 11 full-member countries and half a dozen more observer countries working toward full membership. A streamlined secretariat acts as a central hub to coordinate bioinformatic resources, services, and activities run by participating node groups such as EBI, which typically receive their own national funding.

"Each country creates its own national node, and these nodes are usually networks within a country," Smith explained.

For example, ELIXIR Norway includes four universities with bioinformatics resources and databases related to aquaculture projects ranging from cod genome work to studies of sea lice that hamper some fish populations. On the other hand, a node in Sweden runs the Human Protein Atlas, while Finnish members operate a large computing center known as the CSC that stores much of the data generated with samples from that country's biobanks.

Though ELIXIR itself is not a funding body, the organization has been helping to support a few short-term pilot projects each year to assess bioinformatics-related technologies, databases, or services. In the longer term, it may use funds from the ELIXIR hub budget to commission related services as well.

"We're trying to put the processes in place to fund longer-term services that would be run from the ELIXIR nodes to be used by scientists in academia and industry," Smith said.

Some 40 institutes in ELIXIR member countries are involved in the EXCELERATE grant project, representing roughly one-third of the institutes currently involved with ELIXIR in some capacity.

In the future, the organization is expected to take in members from other countries in Europe and may expand to include countries from other parts of the world, Smith said, noting that ELIXIR coordinators might look at the organization's international strategy as early as the end of this year.

The organization has held exploratory workshops with representatives from the National Institutes of Health's Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) initiative and may eventually team up with that group to run joint pilot projects related to bioinformatics standards, training, interoperability, and the like.

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