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Team adds ‘cyber tools’ to plant biology effort

January 31, 2008

ASU’s supercomputing center will play a key role in one of the nation’s most ambitious scientific endeavors.

The High Performance Computing Institute (HPCI) in the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering will assist in developing the “cyberinfrastructure” – the computational tools – for the iPlant Collaborative, a project aimed at answering the most challenging questions in plant biology.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced Jan. 30 that it is providing $50 million to begin the project, and potentially an additional $50 million after the project’s first five years.

HPCI will support the iPlant Collaborative lead science team at the University of Arizona (UA), as well as other project partners at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and Purdue University.

UA is the recipient of about 79 percent of the NSF funding for the project.

“Our role is to support the plant scientists in implementing their vision for the iPlant cyberinfrastructure,” says Daniel Stanzione, founding director of HPCI. “We are providing the large-scale storage, high-end computing power and expertise in applying supercomputing as part of the cyberinfrastructure.”

The magnitude and potential impact of the project are on a grand scale, Stanzione says.

“Deepening our knowledge in plant science is critically important in confronting many of our global challenges,” he says. “Food production, energy production, environmental sustainability, the development of biofuels and more effective medicines, dealing with climate change – all of these hinge on making new discoveries in plant biology.”

Through the capabilities of HPCI and the other iPlant project partners, Stanzione and his team are to help construct the computer systems and programs to gather, store, organize and analyze a vast data pool of plant biology knowledge and research findings. It also will provide the most advanced computer modeling and data-visualization ability.

The goal is to use the systems to connect plant, computer and information scientists around the world, providing them the sophisticated resources needed to communicate and collaborate quickly and effectively.

“We essentially will be building the cybertools necessary to speed up discoveries in areas that cross almost all aspects of science and engineering,” Stanzione says. “ “We will develop an interactive online environment for sharing of ideas and algorithms, making data rapidly accessible and analyzable. That is going to create some great intellectual synergy.”

The result promises to help reveal extensive new knowledge about basic cell structure and genetics, species progression, evolutionary processes and disease development, he says.

Quentin Wheeler, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at ASU, and founding director of the International Institute of Species Exploration, says the project could dramatically lift technological constraints that have impeded scientific progress.

In part because of the bewildering diversity of flowering plants, scientists have become specialists and typically master a limited domain of knowledge, restricting their research to one of a few model organisms, Wheeler explains.

“This plant science cyberinfrastructure will bridge these knowledge gaps, opening the grand diversity of plants to research and vastly improving communication among scientists,” he says. “The quarter-million species of flowering plants – and thousands of yet-to-be-discovered species – have much to tell us about their evolution, genetics, physiology and development.”

The computational capacity HPCI will help enable “the diversity, quality, number and productivity of collaborative research projects to blossom,” Wheeler says, adding: “Considering the bold transdisciplinary initiative at ASU, it’s fitting that we are playing a significant role in this transformative project.”