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Science & Tech

Grad Students Track Genetic Changes of Everyday Life

$3.2 million NSF grant bolsters bioinformatics research

You don’t have to be a biologist to know that smoking can cause emphysema or that eating too much high-fructose corn syrup can add a few pounds. But finding out why those things happen on a molecular level takes substantial research. Boston University’s Bioinformatics Program faculty are delving further into understanding the biological networks that produce commonplace physical results with the help of a recent $3.2 million Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) grant from the National Science Foundation.

The IGERT program funds graduate student fellowships, at the level of $30,000 per year, in support of interdisciplinary and innovative graduate education and training and international student exchange for collaborative research. The BU Bioinformatics Program was one of approximately 20 programs chosen for funding from over 400 proposals in 2007.

Bioinformatics — which combines applied mathematics, statistics, computer science, chemistry, and biochemistry to conduct research on the molecular level — is a highly specialized field that allows researchers to use advanced computer science to collect large amounts of data from a limited source. BU’s Bioinformatics Program is offered jointly by the College of Engineering and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

“Many of the experiments analyzed with bioinformatics are high-throughput experiments,” says Gary Benson, the principal investigator for the IGERT grant and a College of Arts and Sciences associate professor of biology and of computer science in the Bioinformatics Program. “That means they can produce millions of data values involving, for example, the level of a cell’s gene activity.”

The results allow researchers such as Avrum Spira, a School of Medicine assistant professor and an adjunct assistant professor of bioinformatics, to explore data on pulmonary diseases more efficiently, using computational tools and algorithms. In Spira’s lab, the diseased tissue from smokers with severe emphysema is run on a microarray, creating a platform from which to map and measure a complete set of genes in the human genome. Using the computational tools to analyze the data provides insights into the progression of emphysema. “Hopefully,” Spira says, “this will lead to ways to treat the disease.”

Spira currently has one graduate student whose research is funded by IGERT analyzing data in his lab. The new grant provides stipends for 25 additional graduate students, or 5 new graduate students each year for five years, in the Bioinformatics Program. The grant will also help fund student travel to conferences, offset student publication costs, support the University’s annual bioinformatics symposium, and launch an outreach program to encourage biology and math curriculum development in high schools.

In addition, the IGERT funding will lay the groundwork for more international collaboration by enabling 16 students to travel abroad. Using bioinformatics techniques, they will work in laboratories in Germany, Japan, and possibly Israel, says Charles DeLisi, BU’s Arthur G. B. Metcalf Professor of Science and Engineering and director and founding chair of the Bioinformatics Program. Travel, DeLisi says, is an important part of keeping abreast of new developments in the field.

“The world is shrinking,” he says. “This is really going to keep us on top.”