13th Feb 2015

High-performance ‘cyberinfrastructure’ for the plant sciences is coming to Britain, thanks to a major new collaboration between scientists at the University of Arizona (US), the Texas Advanced Computing Center (US), the University of Warwick, the University of Liverpool, the University of Nottingham, and The Genome Analysis Centre (UK).

Plant science research generates huge volumes of data containing untold discoveries, which could help tackle global challenges in medicine, biofuels, biodiversity and agriculture, and problems like drought tolerance, plant breeding and sustainable farming. A current bottleneck to these discoveries is a lack of capacity to share enormous data files and analyse them in an efficient, user-friendly way.

The iPlant Collaborative is a virtual organisation funded by the US National Science Foundation (NSF), originally to create cyberinfrastructure for the plant sciences, now the life sciences. Harnessing the power of some of the world’s fastest supercomputers, iPlant provides huge cloud-based storage space and a virtual lab bench, which put global life science data and online tools in one place. Users can share datasets and tools to analyse data with as many or as few people as they wish. Tools to analyse data developed by iPlant staff, or built by others, can be shared with the wider community in a similar manner to smartphone 'apps'.

The iPlant Collaborative is currently distributed across three US locations and in less than 10 years has amassed over 18,500 users. Recently awarded BBSRC funding will extend this into an international collaboration by building a UK iPlant node at The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC) in Norwich. TGAC provides the National Capability for computational infrastructure, and as such is perfectly situated to provide the foundations for the iPlant UK node.

Software tools developed for specific plant science sequencing, systems biology and image analysis projects at the Universities of Warwick, Liverpool and Nottingham, will be adapted by a dedicated team of programmers so that they can be integrated into iPlant UK. These will then be made freely and openly available for the wider plant science community to use.

A UK iPlant node will help to spread expertise and best practice between the UK and US, allow the UK to input to the future direction of this valuable resource, and provide an exemplar project to others wishing to establish future international iPlant nodes.

By establishing iPlant UK and promoting access to a resource that allows users to readily store and analyse their data, this project will help support a wide range of research, including genome-wide association projects exploiting natural variation in crops, predicting biological networks and pathways, and the high-throughput imaging and image analysis services that take researchers one step closer to fully understanding which genes are linked to specific traits in plants.