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Iowa State computer, electrical engineers working to help biologists cope with big data

AMES, Iowa Liang Dong held up a clear plastic cube, an inch or so across, just big enough to hold 10 to 20 tiny seeds.

Using sophisticated sensors and software, researchers can precisely control the light, temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide inside that cube.

Dong an Iowa State University assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, of chemical and biological engineering and an associate of the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory calls it a "microsystem instrument." Put hundreds of those cubes together and researchers can simultaneously grow thousands of seeds and seedlings in different conditions and see what happens. How, for example, do the plants react when it is hot and dry? Or carbon dioxide levels change? Or light intensity is adjusted very slightly?

The instrument designed and built by Dong's research group will keep track of all that by using a robotic arm to run a camera over the cubes and take thousands of images of the growing seeds and seedlings.

Plant scientists will use the images to analyze the plants' observable characteristics the leaf color, the root development, the shoot size. All those observations are considered a plant's phenotype. And while plant scientists understand plant genetics very well, Dong said they don't have a lot of data about how genetics and environment combine to influence phenotype.

Dong's instrument will provide researchers with lots of data too much for scientists to easily sort and analyze. That's a problem known as big data. And it's increasingly common in the biological sciences.

"We're seeing a proliferation of new instruments in the biological sciences," said Srinivas Aluru, the Ross Martin Mehl and Marylyne Munas Mehl Professor of Computer Engineering at Iowa State. "And the rate of data collection is increasing. So we have to have a solution to analyze all this data."

Aluru is leading a College of Engineering

Contact: Srinivas Aluru
Iowa State University

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