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NMSU receives $4.5 million grant to establish bioinformatics center

New Mexico State University has received a five-year, $4.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to establish a new center that will focus on the emerging field of bioinformatics. It will be the first such research center in New Mexico.

rmatics, or computational biology, involves the application of information technology to the understanding of biological processes. It has implications for a variety of fields, including medicine, agriculture and homeland security.

"Right now biological data is accumulating at a rate that outpaces the development of computational tools to analyze it," said Desh Ranjan, head of the department of computer science at NMSU. An example of this, Ranjan said, is the Human Genome Project, in which DNA sequences are accumulating faster than researchers can figure out what they mean.

Goals of the new center include developing software that can help biologists in their studies and training students for careers in bioinformatics.

"We need people who are skilled in working with data as well as the underlying science," Ranjan said. "There is a huge shortage of such people nationwide, even internationally."

Ranjan said NMSU plans to offer a master's degree program in bioinformatics in about two years and eventually a Ph.D. program. It also plans to offer a variety of activities designed to interest high school students in pursuing careers in bioinformatics. A major goal of the center is to increase the number of minorities in the bioinformatics profession.

The new center will draw together researchers from the departments of computer science, biology and biochemistry, and agronomy and horticulture. In addition to Ranjan, who will serve as director of the center, researchers who will be involved with the center include Brook Milligan, associate professor of biology; Mary O'Connell, professor of agronomy and horticulture; Jing He, assistant professor of computer science; and Enrico Pontelli, associate professor of computer science.

Initial research projects that will be conducted at the center include:

"Development of computer tools that will make it easier for biologists to determine which family tree organisms belong to. Correct classification of organisms is critical for diagnosis and treatment. For example, good bioinformatics tools enabled researchers to quickly understand the threat posed by the SARS virus.

"Development of an information management system to organize data that has been gathered on the hantavirus in Paraguay. Better organization of molecular, environmental, ecological and geographic information could help predict where the virus might hit next. This research could serve as a model for studying other emerging diseases.

"Development of computational tools to help understand the biological function of genes in organisms such as chile peppers and alfalfa. This information could help researchers develop plants that are resistant to certain diseases or enable them to develop new flavors of food crops such as chiles.

"Development of computational methods to study the three-dimensional structure of proteins. This is critical to understanding the role of proteins, which are responsible for nearly every function required for life. Knowledge of protein structure will help researchers design drugs to cure diseases caused by abnormal protein structures. Sickle cell anemia, for example, is caused by one faulty amino acid in a protein.

Waded Cruzado-Salas, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at NMSU, noted that this new center falls within one of the six areas that have been identified for strategic research focus at the university: information sciences.

"The establishment of this center is a major achievement and represents the successful implementation of one of our research thrusts," Cruzado-Salas said. "It is a comprehensive project with great potential to benefit New Mexico and beyond."