Lab to transform research

Beth Hornby

A new lab in St. Paul will revolutionize biology research, University students and professors said.

Plant genetics, AIDS and cancer research are just a few of the projects that will transpire in the Supercomputing Institute lab, which is equipped with the most current software for genetics and biological research.

“It lets you visualize the numbers you are working with,” said Zheng Jin Tu, a computational

biology consultant. “It is much easier to understand if you can see the different colors on the screen and look at it from every angle.”

Because sifting through genetic data can overwhelm even the smartest scientist, the lab software allows researchers to look at DNA in colors and forms.

Several computers in the lab can produce detailed three-dimensional images of molecules invisible to the human eye. One program produces a rotating image of a DNA strand, each part a different color.

For his AIDS and HIV research, Ashley Haase said, the technology might make the crucial difference in a breakthrough.

“We are looking for a surprise, a new relationship we haven’t seen before, and something we may not have ever imagined,” he said. “There’s going to be an even greater need for organization.”

Doctors from Rochester’s Mayo Clinic cancer research department and researchers from the University’s Duluth campus are among more than 12,000 faculty and private sector researchers who will have access to the lab, Tu said.

Scientific Computer Group manager Runesha Birali said the lab will transform the way students study biology, perhaps forcing them to trade microscopes and lab coats for computers.

“Until recently it was traditional for biology students to be in the wet labs,” Birali said. “Now they are in the (computer) labs more and more.”

The lab also stores genetic information Birali said will be tremendously valuable because scientists often make predictions based on previous discoveries.

Ronald Phillips, director of the Center for Microbiology, said the database allows researchers across the world to freely exchange information through the Internet.

Although University researchers have not yet contributed to the genome database, he said the agriculture department will soon become a reputable source for grain genetics information.

“You need this software to be able to compare the data from different species,” Phillips said.

He said knowing how different plant genes work will allow farmers to predict how specific plants will react in different environmental conditions and among other plants. This kind of specific information will be a powerful tool in agriculture, he said.

University Executive Vice President and Provost Christine Mazier said it is difficult to find another college campus with the same facilities. While other campuses might have similar equipment, the St. Paul lab is unique because it is accessible to the public and all University departments.

“Let’s avoid Midwestern humility and tell everyone who we are,” Mazier said.

Sun Microsystems, IBM and SGI contributed equipment to the lab. The lab is open 24 hours per day, seven days per week to anyone who receives permission from the Supercomputing Institute.