ROANOKE, May 4, 2001 - Virginia Bioinformatics Institute uses its cutting-edge computers to organize data for genetic researchers. Scientists at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute have begun crunching data from several genetic research projects under the Institute's first partnerships since opening last summer. 

VBI, which is centered at Virginia Tech but will eventually include other universities and state and federal agencies, is designed to help the state tap into the booming genetics industry by offering researchers computers they need to understand data.

Gene sequencing and other genetic research produce vast amounts of raw information, which then must be "cleaned" and filtered to remove irrelevant data.

Under contracts negotiated in late winter, VBI will use its computers and software to process data from genetic research projects at the University of Nevada, Reno, and the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, an Oklahoma-based nonprofit organization that funds research on agriculture and plant sciences. The partnerships give VBI staff a chance to test its software using "real" data.

"It's so fun that it actually works; we put in the data and see it come out the other end," said Jennifer Weller, research associate professor and VBI's lead person on the project.

Researchers at the University of Nevada are working to genetically alter plants to make them more drought resistant and salt tolerant. If successful, the project could have dramatic effects on agriculture, especially in irrigated fields, which tend to have higher salinity levels.

The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation is working on gene discovery in economically important forage grass and legume species.

John Cushman, associate professor in Nevada's Department of Biochemistry, said his group quickly realized the need to contract out its bioinformatics needs when their lab assistants started spending more time learning how to use the complex computer programs than performing research.

"We're biologists, and we are used to working in the lab," Cushman said. "We know how to generate the data very well, but really you need to partner with people who have expertise on the computational sciences."

VBI staff are also developing programs to help with the monotonous tasks required in genetic projects. That way, scientists can devote more time to deciphering the results, Weller said.

"When you do genetic sequencing, there are an awful lot of tasks that are very repetitive and very boring and it's nice if a computer can do them for you," Weller said.

Bruno Sobral, VBI's director, said the institute is thriving just nine months after opening. In March, VBI was named a "Sun Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics" by computer giant Sun Microsystems. That designation means VBI will receive more than $1 million in computational resources and support for post-doctoral research over the next three years.

Sun will help coordinate VBI's biochemical-simulation software with Sun's high-performance computing platforms and will help the institute develop its next generation of software.

In all, VBI expects to bring in $7.5 million from outside resources by the end of May, Sobral said.

"We've more than doubled the state's investment in terms of outside investment," Sobral said. "We went out and made it happen."

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Published by Public Relations, May 03, 2001