Just as Google Earth lets you zoom in on individual buildings from space, researchers may one day be able to toggle between whole-ecosystem views of plants and the molecules that make them up with just a few clicks of the mouse. Today, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded $50 million to a five-institution consortium that will develop the hardware and software to link and analyze data from many different fields, with the ultimate goal of answering complex questions about plants.
Over the past decade, research in plants has exploded, fueled by the decoding of several plant genomes and new technologies that have made it easier to do comprehensive genetic, cellular, and developmental studies. Information has been flooding in from large-scale, long-term ecological projects as well, helping to pinpoint the roles plants play in ecosystem function and how they are impacted by climate change. But because discoveries come from many different disciplines, "it's hard to pull together that data in a meaningful way," says Richard Jorgensen, a plant biologist at the University of Arizona, Tucson. The school will be the lead university for this new venture, called the iPlant Collaborative, which also includes Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York; Arizona State University in Tempe; the University of North Carolina, Wilmington; and Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.
The project will officially launch this April, when computer scientists come together with information experts and plant scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to decide which questions they would like to tackle first. Once a strategy has been set, says iPlant director Jorgensen, the collaborative must create an interactive environment and tools that can translate data into usable information. For example, using virtual models of everything from plant cells to entire ecosystems, scientists could investigate how climate change affects plant evolution, or how drought and pollution impact plant communities. Over the next 5 years, the $50 million will go toward setting up a center with about 25 new staff members, holding meetings to plan iPlant's future, and coming up with the necessary tools and cyber setup.
Jeff Dangl, a plant biologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, worries whether there's enough high-quality data for such modeling efforts. Nonetheless, he applauds iPlant's goals. "They want to know how you find the bigger patterns in biology," he says. "It's a novel approach."