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5 May, 2006 - 11:03 By Staff Reporter

EBI gives database boost to biotechs

The European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) in Cambridge is heading a £11.4 million infrastructure project to provide the scientific community with free and unrestricted access to some of the world’s most important biological databases.

An arm of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, the EBI is expected to receive around half of the funds in a collaborative venture that includes the Swiss Institute for Bioinformatics (SIB), the University of Cologne, Germany, and the European Patent Office.

Titled FELICS – Free European Life-science Information and Computational Services – this unique electronic infrastructure project is designed to develop, enhance and interlink many of the most important data resources in Europe and widen their accessibility to the international research community.

It will be funded under the Research Infrastructures action of the sixth Framework Programme (FP6) with the largest ever European award for computational infrastructures needed to support biological research.

Work on the project began at the beginning of March this year and will generate several new jobs for curators and programmers at EBI’s rapidly growing Hinxton premises.

The EBI’s commitment will last three years while the more complex contribution from the SIB will last a further two years.

The EBI is Europe’s largest curator and disseminator of biological information, and has played a leading role in ensuring that information from genomes, for example, is provided to scientists and the public.

FELICS’ technical coordinator at the EBI, Phil Gardner, said: “Our databases are accessed by many tens or even hundreds of thousands of scientists and are recognised as crucial resources by researchers worldwide.

“Many scientists can’t do their work without them, especially in small to medium sized firms, medical schools and university departments where they do not have access to adequate in-house data resources.”

FELICS encompasses many of the EBI’s familiar databases, but will also feature some crucial new activities and the group has been set several tasks and “deliverables” within three main areas: Networking activities; joint research activities; and transnational access activities.

Gardner said: “There are a lot of tasks and requirements in this integrated infrastructure initiative, with deliverables as defined by the European Commission, which we have to meet.

“The bulk of the project will take place over the first three years and as the major partner in the programme we will receive a major piece of the funding.”

Other part of the project include support for BRENDA, the University of Cologne’s enzyme database, which will release it from its current licensing constraints and provide unrestricted access to its data.

FELICS will also offer specific support for the extraction of information from patent literature in collaboration with the European Patent Office, who will also collaborate closely on CheBI, a database of chemical entities of biological interest, which will receive a substantial boost as part of the project.

Biomolecular databases are a crucial scientific infrastructure. The EBI site as it stands receives around 2 million hits every day with its most conservative estimates suggesting a rise to 10 million during the next five years.

The need for centralised public information resources to provide global services for basic and applied biomolecular and biomedical research can only increase.

Graham Cameron, associate director of the EBI and coordinator of FELICS, said: “Bioinformatics now pervades biology.

“Bioinformatics experts no longer sit between biologist and database. Researchers expect to directly access the databases and do real work.

“FELICS gives scientists the electronic right to roam the biological knowledge space.

“User-friendly software, developed within FELICS and other Commission-funded projects, will facilitate navigation of that space.”


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