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Institute of Applied Biosciences will tackle critical needs

The biosciences research cluster at New Mexico State University soon will become the Institute of Applied Biosciences.

Vimal Chaitanya, vice president for research, graduate studies and international programs, said the new institute will focus on "some of the most important research challenges of our time," from developing biofuels to understanding and combating emerging diseases.

"We have an excellent cluster of faculty members engaged in significant research in these areas already and we will be hiring two new faculty members for the institute," Chaitanya said. "We are looking for the most outstanding researchers we can attract in the areas of synthetic biology and emerging pathogens. Those are the two areas that we have identified as key focus areas."

The Institute of Applied Biosciences will build upon the strengths of the biosciences research cluster, a cross-disciplinary group of faculty members with research interests in areas such as infectious diseases, cancer, genetics, drug development, bioinformatics and public health.

Professors Peter Lammers of the chemistry and biochemistry department and Vincent Gutschick of the biology department, co-leaders of the cluster, said current research in the biosciences at NMSU is supported by more than $11 million in grants from agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

NMSU President Michael Martin said the biosciences serve as a research platform for addressing problems related to agriculture, human health, energy and the environment.

"NMSU has significant expertise in biosciences across the campus and beyond," Martin said. "An institute will coalesce and build upon this expertise to create a more comprehensive and coordinated approach to research. I'm confident that by establishing a strong biosciences institute we can solve real problems, further enhance our national and international reputation, and generate more external funding for research."

The institute's focus on emerging pathogens will encompass diseases that affect livestock, wildlife and plants, as well as human illnesses, Gutschick said.

"Dengue fever is at our borders, we already have West Nile virus, and malaria-carrying mosquitoes are back in the U.S.," he said. "We are at the border - the first line of warning, the first line of defense. We are going to be only part of this effort, but it is important for us to be in there."

Research in synthetic biology is important to the development of new sources of biofuels to replace fossil fuels, and new drug treatments for cancer and other diseases.

"People are very interested in engineering living systems," Lammers said. "Our ability to capture genome sequence information and rapidly gather information on the function of gene sequences is driving the evolution of synthetic biology. I like the fact that the institute will be highly interdisciplinary with faculty members from the colleges of arts and sciences, engineering, agriculture and the business college cooperatively working on common issues."

The biosciences cluster is one of five research clusters at the university, designed to leverage the university's strengths in strategic areas. The others focus on information sciences and security systems, natural resource sustainability and renewal, 21st century space and aerospace, and Southwest and border region health, education, culture and development.

"I hope this will be the first of many institutes that will evolve out of the different research clusters," Lammers said. "We will try to create a highly interactive model with the first institute, one that will help NMSU be nimble in going after opportunities."

Chaitanya said the hiring of two new faculty members "is a modest beginning, but we believe we can expand over time, and we do have existing faculty members who will become part of the institute."

Faculty members affiliated with the institute will have reduced teaching loads, but will be expected to increase their research activities, he said.

Chaitanya said several options are being considered for a facility to house the institute in the future, "but initially faculty members will be dispersed throughout the campus."

"This will be an institute that will encompass almost the whole university community," he said.