Bioinformatic Center to Combine Biology and Computer Science

The Environmental Protection Agency has awarded nearly $6 million in grants to promote environmental research at UNC.

The agency will provide $4.5 million over five years to establish a new bioinformatics research center at the University under the grants announced in November. The Carolina Environmental Bioinformatics Research Center will specialize in computational toxicology, which uses computer models to study environmental contaminants and their effects.

Another $1.4 million grant will go to continuing UNC’s Community Modeling and Analysis System center, established in 2001.

The bioinformatics research center will be administered by the Carolina Center for Genomic Science. It will draw researchers from the University’s genetics, computer science, statistics, medicinal chemistry, environmental science and engineering, and information and library science programs.

Biostatistics professor Fred Wright, who will direct the center, said the quality of UNC’s researchers and their expertise with new genomic technologies were essential in landing the $4.5 million grant. “The strength of our investigators put us over the top,” he said.

UNC’s center is one of two bioinformatics centers funded by the EPA in the past year.

UNC’s center will carry out three primary projects: one in biostatistics, one in chem-informatics and one in computer science.

The biostatistics project will analyze data collected using new technology in toxicology that can assess the effects of chemicals and toxins on an organism’s genetic makeup.

In the past, Wright said, toxicologists could measure only the effects of large doses of toxins because these doses resulted in visible physical changes in an organism, like cancer or death. The new technology can measure the effects of low levels of toxins that may not cause measurable physical damage but which still affect an organism’s genes.

The chem-informatics project will connect the structure of specific toxins and chemicals with their biological effects. Wright said there may be “tens of thousands” of chemicals for which the EPA would like to know environmental and biological impact, but the agency cannot collect data for all of them.

By understanding the properties of the chemicals themselves, scientists may be able to predict a toxin’s effects even without gathering new data, he said.

The computer science branch of the center will compile and store data gathered by the EPA and other toxicology researchers so that they can be easily accessed and analyzed by investigators.

The second grant awarded to Carolina from the EPA will fund the four-year-old Community Modeling and Analysis System Center over the next five years. The center maintains an air-quality modeling system that is used by scientists and policymakers to study the effects of air pollution.

The center’s models simulate different levels of ozone, airborne particles and pollutants to show the impact of air quality on visibility and health. The simulations are considered in policy decisions regarding pollution control and regulation.

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