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New grant to improve computing power of UGA biologists

New grant to improve computing power of UGA biologists

Athens, Ga. – A new grant from the National Science Foundation will more than quadruple the computing power available to University of Georgia biologists. The $796,822 grant from the NSF, matched by more than $300,000 from the University of Georgia Research Foundation was awarded to the UGA Institute of Bioinformatics to provide a powerful new Linux computer cluster, along with substantially more storage space, to be housed at the Research Computing Center.

“The new computer cluster will provide the backbone to support not only the substantial needs of faculty in the institute but to encourage collaborations among biological researchers across campus,” said UGA Vice President for Research David Lee. “We also expect the new acquisition will enrich the educational experience of graduate students in bioinformatics and computational biology.”

Bioinformatics, an interdisciplinary science that uses computational and mathematical techniques to address biological problems, emerged with the Human Genome Project in the mid-1980s. The driving force behind it is the enormous amount of biological data being generated by so-called “omic” scientific techniques-as is in genomics, proteomics and metabolomics. These data provide information about the presence, structure, functional states and relationships of molecules and cells within living organisms.

“This win demonstrates how collaboration with the Research Computing Center in the formulation of grant applications and the support of computing resources can give competitive advantage to sound scientific initiatives” said Jerry NeSmith, co-director of the RCC.

The IOB’s 17 participating laboratories represent a group of 60-plus scientists with a common mission. Members, who have submitted joint research and training grants, organized new courses and co-taught existing courses, include some 74 graduate students and 52 postdoctoral research scholars. They will constitute the first group of users.

“Biology is becoming increasingly more quantitative,” said Ying Xu, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and director of the UGA Institute for Bioinformatics. “This grant will enable UGA’s computational bio-scientists to tackle more complex biological problems at much larger scales.”

Researchers in the IOB use computational techniques to interpret biological data, predict the structures and functions of biological entities, and to model the dynamic behaviors of biological processes and systems. The research programs of IOB faculty cover a wide range of topics. For example, they are studying genomic instability and its relevance to cancer; identifying biomarkers for early cancer detection; performing computational modeling of biomass degradation; and analyzing microbial genomic structures and large-scale modeling work ranging from ecosystems to bio-molecules.

“The new computer cluster will certainly speed up research projects in my own lab,” said Xu. “For example, our current work on identifying biomarkers for early cancer detection involves solving problems on the order of 1015 mathematical optimization. It is unthinkable to solve problems at this scale without a powerful computer.”

Xu said that in the past bioinformatics has always been used as a tool to assist biological scientists. “But with the rapid accumulation of biological data and the availability of more powerful computers, computational bio-scientists are increasingly driving their own research rather than simply serving as technologists for others,” he said.