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Salk—Salk awarded $2.5M to research cells via computers

A local research institute received millions of dollars in funding recently for an experiment involving biology and information technology.

The National Science Foundation awarded the Salk Institute in La Jolla a $2.5 million grant for continued research involving the internal workings of biological cells via computer networks.

The grant was part of a $4.3 million aid package to UCSD from the foundation geared to promote the use of information technology in science and engineering.

The experiment, if successful, would allow biologists access to the workings of an entire cell, rather than particular functions, and in a much shorter time than currently available.

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The 10-year-old study is a joint experiment between Salk, the University of Tennessee, and the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said Dr. Terry Sejnowski, a Salk scientist involved in the project.

One of the goals of the experiment is to research the behavior of entire cells when introduced to certain stimuli through large-scale computer software networks.

– Focusing On How Cell Works

“We’re primarily concerned here at The Salk Institute, in my lab, with a small part of that,” Sejnowski said. “What we’re interested in is how does a cell work.”

Sejnowski is also a professor in computational neuroscience at UCSD.

He said the research in its entirety is too big for just one laboratory and estimates his lab is only involved in one-fifth of the entire study.

“If you really want to understand something as complicated as the cell it’s just too big for any one computer,” Sejnowski said. “You want to distribute it across thousands of computers and they can be located anywhere.”

The exact number of computers to be used throughout the duration of the project is unknown to even the program’s technical director.

“We’re going to get everything we can find,” said Fran Berman, also a UCSD professor.

Berman plans to use computers in San Diego, Pittsburgh, Tennessee, Japan and other countries.

– Many Computers To Handle The Job

“We want to do very large scale simulations which means the more computers we can apply to this, the more wire space we can look at, at any given time,” she said.

Berman believes this study will produce new science not only for biologists, but for computer scientists, too.

“I think this whole sort of computational frontier is a frontier that is emerging,” she said. “It really gives disciplinary scientists extra tools and provides challenges for computer scientists because we really have to take new approaches to develop the type of software disciplinary scientists need.”

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