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VBI Wins NSF Funds for Plant Stress Systems Bio

By a GenomeWeb staff reporter

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Scientists at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI) at Virginia Tech will use a $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop systems biology tools that will enable plant biologists to study signal transduction pathways and plant adaptation.

The four-year grant will support efforts to develop the Beacon database, which enables plant researchers to construct and edit signaling pathways and to integrate current and future data on cellular organization across species.

The project should make it possible for researchers to use computational and statistical means to assess if the activity of one molecule causes a response in another, and to use the Beacon system to simulate particular environmental conditions and identify new connections in molecular networks.

The goal of many current studies of signaling pathways is to understand early responses in higher plants to environmental changes involving abiotic stress, drought, flooding, and changes in heat, cold, ozone, and salt. The larger aim of much of this research is to learn about how plants may respond to global climate change and to begin to take steps to mitigate its negative effects on crops for food and other uses.

"A crucial first step along the path to increasing world food security is a fundamental understanding of how plants respond to extreme changes in their environment," Ruth Grene, professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science, said in a statement.

"Much data, and some databases, have already accumulated, documenting plants' responses to their environments, but those resources remain scattered. There is a gap between biologists, whose expertise lies in the study of organisms' behavior, and computer scientists, with the necessary domain knowledge to unify existing data, and make them accessible for study and further development," Grene continued.

"This project builds upon the community-based, Beacon system to provide computational support for biologists' questions about signaling pathways, thereby empowering those plant biologists to curate and archive signaling pathways for abiotic stress responses in the Beacon database," explained Lenny Heath, a professor of computer science at Virginia Tech.

Virginia Tech said that it will hold a workshop in the fall of 2012 to bring together international experts on environmental stresses and plant signaling pathways.

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