BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - The European Bioinformatics Institute will receive what it is calling the "biggest ever single injection of funds into bioinformatics infrastructure in Europe" from the European Union.

It says it expects to win a contract under the EU's research program on quality of life worth almost EUR20 million (US$19 million) over three years. The money will be shared among 25 collaborators in 11 nations, and enable bioinformatics to play a fuller role in deciphering information from the Human Genome Project.

The funding will back combined techniques of classification and characterization of genes and proteins to improve the interoperability of biological databases by building an integrated layer for the exploitation of genomic and proteomic data. It also will be used to establish a database of protein-protein interactions, and facilitate comparative analysis of data from multiple sources. A database of 3-dimensional macromolecular structures will be set up, and another database will be created on microarray technology, which has in recent years become the most important tool in the analysis of genome-wide gene expression studies.

The challenge for bioinformaticians has been to cope with the pace at which experimental data becomes available. The DNA sequence database maintained by the European Bioinformatics Institute today holds more 12.5 billion bases (individual "letters" of the genome sequence) in some 12 million records. But the size of the database doubles every eight months - and the pace is still accelerating, stressed the EU in its justification for the funding.

In addition, it said, new types of data are rapidly becoming available, ranging from protein sequences to mutation information, and from 3-dimensional structures of bio-molecules to immunogenetics datasets.

The institute is an outstation of European Molecular Biology, headquartered in Heidelberg, Germany. Its director general, Fotis Kafatos, said the project will allow the institute to develop powerful new informatics tools vital in the post-genomics era. Until now, Europe has lagged behind in investments in biological data management. The U.S. National Institutes of Health spent some EUR300 million in 2000 to support bioinformatics projects. The budget of the National Center for Biotechnology Information for 2000 was EUR38 million, and will reach EUR48 million in 2001. But public investment in bioinformatics in Europe hardly reached EUR100 million in 2000.

Peter Kind, acting director of health research in the European Commission, described the grant as the first tangible result of the initiative on "genomes for human health," which European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin launched earlier this year. The funding is seen as a tool in assuring continued EU autonomy in an increasingly competitive world.

"It is imperative for Europe to ensure its competitiveness in this field if we do not want to become a 'customer' for technologies developed elsewhere and a 'consumer' of products and services provided by our competitors," Kind said.

The money will come on top of a Wellcome Trust grant of EUR12 million over the next five years to the institute and the Sanger Centre, to provide a "reference" view of the human genome sequence, making it freely available to scientists and the public, in a project known as Ensembl.

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