Thursday, December 20, 2007

Biodiversity Informatics Initiative Underway

[Source: Bio5] - Two recently recruited scientists from UC Davis, Michael Sanderson, PhD, and Michelle McMahon, PhD, are jump-starting the new Biodiversity Informatics initiative at The University of Arizona (UA).

The initiative is building on existing UA strengths in biology and informatics. As it develops, the initiative will 1) provide nationally unique research and training programs, 2) establish a framework for meeting the expanding bioinformatics needs at the UA, and 3) complement the informatics programs at other institutions in the State. Funding for the initiative comes from the UA BIO5 Institute, College of Science and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Dr. Sanderson, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) and a BIO5 member, is spearheading the development of the research and training program, focusing on the Sonoran Desert. Dr. McMahon, a research assistant professor in the Department of Plant Sciences, runs the UA Herbarium.

With more than 380,000 specimens, it is the largest herbarium in the arid southwest and unique in having the largest collection in the world of plants from Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. It is one of several outstanding UA natural history collections.Plans also include competitively funded pilot projects to stimulate interactions between UA information scientists and biological researchers, and establishing a graduate interdisciplinary training program. For example, EEB is hiring postdoctoral level curators that will begin this fall; the new positions are part of a renewed investment in the UA natural history collections.

“The new curator positions are exciting because they will bring in people who are interested in combining rich resources in natural history collections with modern technology and cutting edge scientific questions,” says Dr. McMahon.

Why Informatics?

One common theme across all scientific activities and operations that support biological research and medical care is the need to share data efficiently and effectively. Yet, the data are not often in a form that is suitable for straightforward storage and application using simple data analysis tools such as statistical methods, data mining approaches or visualization. Some of these data are too voluminous to easily comprehend and manipulate unless presented in clustered, visual and other forms (e.g. image data that are digitized for analysis are often too complex to effectively analyze).

Advanced technology is required for the management of this scientific knowledge; thus it is imperative that biologists collecting and interpreting these data are interfacing with information technologists working at the cutting-edge of knowledge management.

What is Biodiversity Informatics?

Distinguished from typical “bioinformatics”, which emphasizes depth in genomic and post-genomic information mainly in model organisms and humans, “biodiversity informatics” focuses on breadth—attributes of large collections of disparate species at scales ranging from populations to geographic regions to entire biotas, and ultimately the entire phylogenetic tree of life. Biodiversity informatics uses the power of computational and information technologies to organize and analyze biological data from research collections, experiments, remote sensing, modeling, database searches and instrumentation – to deliver answers to users throughout the world. Today, the Internet and World Wide Web are powerful tools for linking and utilizing the extraordinary assets of natural history institutions.

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