Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory To Play Central Role Addressing Key Questions In Plant Biology

iPlant Collaborative will unite scientists across disciplines

Cold Spring Harbor, NY – Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) will play a central role in an important new initiative called the iPlant Collaborative, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The Collaborative will define and address “grand challenge questions” in plant biology that have global implications.

“The idea is to develop an all-encompassing computer- and internet-based infrastructure that will transform the way plant science is done, and that will be accessible, at different levels, by scientists across the disciplines and across the planet,” explained Lincoln Stein, Ph.D., CSHL professor and a co-principal investigator of the Collaborative. “In addition, the program will be a valuable resource for students and interested members of the public.”

CSHL and four research universities, led by the University of Arizona, will share a $50 million NSF grant over five years to launch the iPlant Collaborative. It will bring together researchers from every area within plant biology – molecular and cellular biologists, geneticists, genome scientists, as well as experts on ecosystems and biosystem diversity – by building infrastructure through which they can more readily interact and collaborate.

Since research is done in real-time as well as “offline” in conjunction with mathematicians, computer scientists and engineers, informatics experts, and even social scientists, plant biologists can be certain that the tools available through the iPlant network will reflect the latest knowledge. “This reflects the way science is done in the 21st century,” says Rob Martienssen, Ph.D., professor and head of plant genetics at CSHL. “The days have long passed when it made sense for individual scientists, or individual labs, or even individual institutions, to attack major scientific questions in isolation from the broader community.”

Collaboration across disciplines in pursuit of innovative science – for instance, plant genome experts working side-by-side with mathematicians and statisticians to interpret the results of innovative microarray scans of genomic mutations designed by biosystems engineers – is already the norm in the plant science community and throughout the life sciences.  

“But,” emphasizes Dr. Stein, whose bioinformatics tools are widely used by genome scientists worldwide, “the dimension that is lacking, and which the Collaborative seeks to address, concerns the forging of a functional community, within the discipline and extending to those in computer science, math and other fields, upon whose expertise plant science depends.”

CSHL, through its Dolan DNA Learning Center (DNALC), will collaborate with the project team to embed outreach materials within the iPlant portal, thus tightly linking plant research and education. Such material will include video and audio podcasts to publicize the project and to provide students and teachers a window on the “grand challenge” development process.

The DNALC will work with plant researchers to develop video interviews and narrated animations that explain the conceptual background and historical development of each “grand challenge.” The culmination of which will spawn a nationwide program that will train 1,000 science teachers in how to utilize iPlant tools for student projects that support integrative and computational thinking.

“Science education and public outreach typically begin well after a scientific revolution has settled down into what Thomas Kuhn called normal science. In this project, we want to directly involve students and teachers in this revolutionary period of plant research by providing them with educational interfaces into the same data used by iPlant scientists,” stated David Micklos, Executive Director of the DNALC.

The iPlant Collaborative was formed after a call for proposals in 2006 from the NSF’s Department of Biological Infrastructure. CSHL will host the Collaborative’s inaugural meeting, set for April 2008, as well as additional meetings throughout the five-year period of the NSF grant.

“It’s an exciting prospect that brings to mind some other forward-looking moments in the recent history of biological research in which CSHL was deeply involved,” said Dr. Martienssen. “It was on our campus that the idea for sequencing the first plant genome got off the ground, and where the outlines of what became the Human Genome Project were first sketched. We are hoping that the iPlant Collaborative will also achieve great things.”   

CSHL is a private, non-profit research and education institution dedicated to exploring molecular biology and genetics in order to advance the understanding and ability to diagnose and treat cancers, neurological diseases, and other causes of human suffering.  For more information, visit www.cshl.edu.