Computational biology: a match made in Iowa


News from ScienceDaily today points out how the sciences are coming together to cope with an overwhelming volume of data. In this case, it is computer scientists, electrical engineers and biologists.

To study biological systems, even individual elements of a biological system, scientists sometimes have to recreate the proper ecological environment and then recreate them over and over with slight variations to study change. That is both time consuming and requires too many resources.

Liang Dong is an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and chemical and biological engineering at Iowa State University. He also is an associate of the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory.

He ran into such a problem studying seed reactions to various conditions of heat, humidity, carbon dioxide exposure and light intensity. He solved it in part by using a robotic arm to run a camera over the cubes and taking thousands of images of the growing seeds and seedlings.

The part this technology didn't solve--and in fact exacerbated in a way--is that this generated too much for scientists to easily sort and analyze. Not a new problem for biologists.

In fact, Srinivas Aluru, Professor of Computer Engineering at Iowa State, is leading a College of Engineering initiative to build research teams capable of solving big data problems in next-generation DNA sequencing, systems biology and phenomics.

The researchers are developing computing solutions that take advantage of emerging technologies, such as cloud computing and high performance computers. They're also building partnerships with technology companies, and are working with billions of data points to accurately predict, for example, harvests based on plant genotype, soil type and weather conditions.

This has encouraged a more symbiotic relationship between biologists and computer scientists, said one professor in the article.

To date, the computational biology initiative has attracted $5.5 million for four major research projects.

For more:
- see the ScienceDaily article

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