The National Science Foundation
has awarded $50 million to a multi-institution collaborative headquartered at the University of Arizona's BIO5 Institute
to create a national cyberinfrastructure for the biological sciences.
The renewal grant for the iPlant Collaborative
will allow scientists around the world to collaborate and use proven computational tools to analyze and manage massive biological data sets to efficiently address questions of scientific, national and global importance.
The original five-year, $50-million project, initiated in 2008, was the largest grant ever awarded by the NSF in the biological sciences, and three times larger than any NSF grant received by an institute in the state of Arizona at the time. Today, even in a precarious time for national funding agencies, the NSF renewed the iPlant award for another five years, increasing the total investment in the project to $100 million.
, a senior computational biologist at the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and leading iPlant scientist, likens the project to the infrastructure underlying a city.
"Roadways, plumbing, electricity – those are things we often take for granted. Whenever we build a new structure, be it a small house, a large apartment complex, or a business, we connect to that underlying infrastructure," Lyons said. "The needs of a small house are very different from those for a multi-resident apartment complex, but hooking up to the common infrastructure just works."
"The infrastructure is scalable depending on the particular needs of a project. Instead of electricity and plumbing and roads, iPlant provides scalable solutions for computing and storing data and software services that allows the life science community to easily access those resources. iPlant scales from very small individual microbes to large organisms that we're familiar with – plants, animals, fungi – to looking at biology across the entire planet. In addition, iPlant provides education and knowledge resources and training for researchers to be data scientists. Such skills are in high demand in many academic, government, and for-profit industries," Lyons said.
NSF's renewal of iPlant "is proof that our investment in higher education is paying off. Our public universities have adopted aggressive goals to increase externally-funded research and it is evident they are succeeding." Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said. "For Arizona's economy to remain vibrant in the future, we need to grow the industries, like the biosciences, that benefit from the high quality research that takes place in our universities. We are tremendously proud that our state, and the University of Arizona, was chosen to continue this leading-edge research project."
"This remarkable renewal grant recognizes the great work being done every day by UA researchers and their collaborators and, specifically, the solid reputation and success of the iPlant Collaborative," said UA President Ann Weaver Hart. "The UA has emerged as a leader in the biosciences and computational science research and education, and we appreciate the National Science Foundation's acknowledgement of iPlant's impact. Solving the grand challenges that all of us face: feeding the world, improving the health of people and the planet, and the conservation and use of our natural resources requires projects like iPlant and worldwide collaborations among scientists."
Over the past five years, iPlant's team of 40-plus employees at the UA—working with additional personnel at TACC, CSHL and UNCW—has solicited the national and international plant research community for the computational and data-based challenges they face in research. Based on this community input, the team created a set of technologies for connecting scientists both to needed computational resources and to collaborators with expertise to accelerate the pace of their research. The iPlant tools and services are being adopted by a broad range of life science researchers in need of high performance computing for big data analysis and management. These tools and services also are being used in innovative approaches to education, outreach and the study of social networks.
Said Lyons: "Scientists now are sequencing not only human genomes but a whole bunch of plant genomes, a whole bunch of microbial genomes, a whole bunch of animal genomes. They're using all of this information to figure out how basic biology works and how the underlying genetics could be used to help breeding programs. For example, how we can come up with better strains of corn and better strains of soybeans that perform better in different kinds of environmental conditions. The problem is – what do they do with all these data?"
iPlant will enable scientists to handle and interpret massive data sets with the same ease as early botanists handled plants. Nirav Merchant, iPlant's cyberinfrastructure faculty adviser at the UA, puts it this way: "We've always had big data, but now we have the usable tools and technology to act on it."
Lyons leads a team developing the specialized software to allow researchers all over the world to study genomes and manipulate biological data. In a typical application, his team developed a key part of the cyber infrastructure necessary to handle and analyze the huge amounts of data generated by deciphering the genome sequence of the banana plant, published last year in Nature.
"iPlant has created both a physical center at the UA's BIO5 Institute and a virtual computing space where researchers can communicate and work together as they share, analyze and manipulate data, all while seeking answers to biology's greatest unsolved problems," said Stephen Goff
, iPlant's principal investigator and project director based at the UA. "iPlant’s mission is to merge ever-evolving computational technology and shared data capabilities with collaborative human brainpower, essentially changing the way we approach life science research."
, director of the UA BIO5 Institute, said: "In the model of BIO5 and the University of Arizona in general, iPlant brings together many different types of scientists, teachers, and students who otherwise might not communicate with one another, and in doing so, creates the kind of multidisciplinary environment that is necessary to crack the toughest problems in modern biology."