BLACKSBURG, Jan. 6, 2003 - Congress has awarded $4.5 million to the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech to purchase computers and equipment for a "one-stop" database of information on biological threats, officals announced Friday.
Members of Virginia's congressional delegation have been working since the spring to win federal funding for the institute, which is housed at Virginia Tech but is eventually going to be a cooperative effort of several state universitites. Since Sept. 11 and subsequent anthrax scares, there has been a new sense of urgency on Capitol Hill and in Virginia to strengthen the country's protections against terrorism.
Researchers believe that bioinformatics - the science of managing and interpreting the vast amounts of genetic data coming to light - is key to identifying and fighting terrorism by biological agents, or bioterrorism. Government and private entities throughout the nation are conducting research on potential biological threats, but a lack of coordination among the groups often ends in redundant work and significant shortcomings, said U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, the Abington Democrat who also represents Blacksburg.
With the $4.5 million appropriation announced Friday, the institute will be able to create a "one-stop shop" for information on biological threats, Boucher said. The money was included in the Department of Defense budget passed by Congress just before Christmas.
"It will create a common base of information accessible by all agencies involved in the assessment of biological security threats," Boucher said Friday during a visit to Tech.
"In carrying out this work, Virginia Tech will broadly advance the nation's security by making the use of data associated with analyzing potential viral or biological threats far more usable for all agencies concerned."
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., who led the push for the institute grant in the Senate, predicted in a phone interview that Virginia Tech will be "on the absolute edge and forefront" of not only bioinformatics but also other national security issues during the next several years.
Since its inception two years ago, the institute has quickly risen to be among the top bioinformatics programs in the country. Computer giants such as Sun Microsystems and IBM have donated supercomputers to the institute, which has also formed several research partnerships with corporations in the United States and Europe. The National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Agriculture have also awarded grants to the institute.
The institute currently employs about 35 people. However, Tech President Charles Steger predicted that with the bioterrorism database and other projects, it could employ "several hundred" more people within two years.
The Department of Defense grant, which is the single largest grant given to the institute so far, will purchase equipment to begin assembling a database of information on pathogens. Institute staff will decipher and analyze the information, which federal agencies could then tap to figure out the strain or place of origin of a biological agent.
"This thing ... is just the first step in a very large and long journey," said Dave Sebring, director of corporate and government relations for the institute.
Sebring said that the $4.5 million grant announced Friday covers this year only. Although future funding is not guaranteed, Sebring said he is confident Congress will award additional grants to the institute.
Boucher agreed, saying the grant paves the way for the Virginia delegation to request additional money next year.
"It is my belief that the Department of Defense will grow to rely to an increasing extent on the bioinformatics research capabilities at Virginia Tech as the nation develops enhanced capabilities to assess viral and biological threats," Boucher said.
January 05, 2002