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Five EU States, EMBL Commit to Funding Pan-European Bioinformatics Infrastructure


By Uduak Grace Thomas

The European Molecular Biology Laboratory and five European countries have agreed to set up a permanent structure for the European Life-Science Infrastructure for Biological Information, or ELIXIR.

Under a memorandum of understanding signed by the six parties, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK agreed to promote ELIXIR's construction and operation as well as to contribute to the project's budget.

Several other EU states are expected to sign the MoU in the near future, EMBL said.

The MoU marks the end of a four-year preparatory phase for ELIXIR and formally commits the signatories to support a pan-European bioinformatics infrastructure that will be built over the next five years. ELIXIR will be distributed across several centers of excellence throughout Europe, known as ELIXIR nodes, which will be connected to the ELIXIR hub at the European Bioinformatics Institute at Hinxton, UK.

The initiative is intended to ensure that biomolecular data, analysis tools, and computational resources are coordinated across EU member states and in many ways will serve as an extension of EBI's current capabilities.

"Despite significant investments in life sciences in Europe, existing biological data centers lack a centrally coordinated strategy that results in efficient integration of, and synergy between, different countries and programs," ELIXIR's current participants noted in a business case outlining the project.

Furthermore, the document states that most EU states "have been reluctant to invest heavily in providing global data infrastructures from national funds." As a result, aside from "core resources" based at EBI, "the European bioinformatics landscape remains largely fragmented across borders and institutions."

ELIXIR will serve as long-term plan for "a coordinated, pan-European effort and investment in a pan-European infrastructure for bioinformatics services" that will comprise "a data infrastructure, a compute infrastructure, a training infrastructure and a tools and standards infrastructure," the document states.

Kicking off Phase Two

The formal launch of ELIXIR follows a preparatory phase that was funded by the EU's 7th Framework Program as part of the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures roadmap.

The first phase included technical feasibility studies that explored how ELIXIR could make use of supercomputing centers and also conducted surveys of more than 500 database providers, Silke Schumacher, EMBL's director of international relations, told BioInform.

One study, which involved researchers from EBI, the Barcelona Supercomputing Center, and Finland's CSC-IT Center for Science, explored the "potential for utilizing European supercomputing facilities to perform computationally expensive bioinformatics tasks as a part of a possible ELIXIR infrastructure" using hardware housed at all three institutions.

Another study looked at the possibility of using the European Genome-Phenome Archive to collect, store, and use genotype data stored in European biobanks without violating medical and privacy regulations.

According to the business case document, the preparatory phase of the project "demonstrated an urgent need for a pan-European infrastructure for biological data, and clearly indicated the organizational and operational model for such an infrastructure: ELIXIR should comprise a central hub, which would act as the coordination point for several nodes distributed throughout Europe."

Now that the MoU has been signed, the five signatories and EMBL will comprise an interim board that is slated to meet on Nov. 7-8 to hammer out an international consortium agreement that will "clarify how ELIXIR will be established as a 'special project' within EMBL, allowing ELIXIR funds to be ring-fenced from other EMBL activities" as well as lay out "the roles, rights, duties and responsibilities" of consortium members.

The board will also be responsible for appointing an independent scientific advisory board that will review applications for ELIXIR nodes.

EBI asked organizations that wanted to be nodes to submit applications in April last year (BI 4/29/2010). So far, about 55 institutions have applied.

Schumacher said that the board meeting in November is expected to result in a detailed plan to manage and provide stable funding for ELIXIR over the long term.

Sustainable Life Science Infrastructure

ELIXIR kicked off its preparatory phase in 2008 with the goal of constructing a sustainable infrastructure to support life science research and its transition to medicine and the environment, the bio-industries, and society.

ELIXIR's hub at EBI will provide round-the-clock data delivery, data archiving, and replication in addition to coordinating activities at node sites.

Furthermore, the hub will be in charge of creating data registries, coordinating data standards, and enabling interactions between research infrastructures, among other responsibilities.

EBI plans to construct a new building on the Wellcome Trust Genome Campus at Hinxton to house the ELIXIR hub and data center.

According to the ELIXIR business case, the consortium has requested approximately £75 million ($118.5 million) from the UK Large Facilities Capital Fund to construct the new facility.

"Funds have been earmarked for ELIXIR, pending the UK Government’s approval of the business plan for the Technical Hub," the document states. In addition, the Wellcome Trust, which has provided "significant financial" support to EBI in the past, "has already signaled its support for the current phase of development by providing the land needed for the ELIXIR Hub."

For their part, nodes will be responsible for contributing specific scientific and technical activities that could include biomolecular data resources, biocompute facilities, software tools, standards, and bioinformatics training.

Nodes "will be funded at the national level by government agencies, charities, and other funders," according to the business case. "Proof of sustainable funding will be required for a node to become part of ELIXIR."

According to the business case, ELIXIR will require a total investment for construction of "several hundred million" euros and will have more than €70 million ($97 million) in operating costs per year at the end of the five-year construction period.

The consortium expects that by the end of the five-year construction period there will be around 20 nodes that will employ a total of more than 200 staff, with nodes varying in size from "a few scientists to 25 or more staff."

Operating costs for the nodes are estimated to range between "several hundred thousand" euros per year to up to €10 million per year "for a very large node with more than 30 staff and high IT costs."

The ELIXIR hub, meantime, will employ around 100 staffers and its operational staff budget is estimated to be around €12 million ($17 million) by 2016, with a total cost from 2012 to 2016 of €28 million ($39 million).

Several European countries have already committed substantial financial resources for ELIXIR.

The project received €4.5 million ($7 million) from the European Commission in 2008 (BI 6/6/2008) and another 19 million SEK ($2.5 million) from several Swedish funding agencies a year later (BI 6/26/2009).

The UK's Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council gave a £10 million ($14.3 million) grant (BI 8/28/2009) that was used to purchase a five-year lease for ELIXIR's European data center and to equip it with hardware. This was followed by €5 million ($7.2 million) in funding from Denmark (BI 1/12/2010) and €1.85 million ($2.6 million) from Finland (BI 2/5/2010). ELIXIR has also received €1.7 million ($2.3 million) per annum over three years from Spain

Have topics you'd like to see covered in BioInform? Contact the editor at uthomas [at] genomeweb [.] com

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