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iPlant Kickoff Conference at CSHL begins tackling plant biology's grand challenges

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory will host the inaugural conference of the iPlant Collaborative, an NSF-funded, $50 million project to create a virtual center in cyberspace for plant sciences researchers and students. The kickoff conference, titled "Bringing Plant and Computing Scientists Together to Solve Plant Biology's Grand Challenges" and scheduled for April 7-9, 2008, will take the first steps in tackling some of plant biology's greatest unsolved mysteries its grand challenge questions.

Researchers from every plant biology discipline will join with an equally diverse selection of computing researchers to collaboratively set criteria for determining the most compelling grand challenges facing plant biology today. They also will discuss the hardware, software and computational tools needed to create a cyberinfrastructure to solve those challenges.

After the conference, self-forming teams from around the country and around the world will propose specific grand challenge questions for the iPlant Collaborative to tackle. Proto-teams will begin to form at the conference, but attendance is not required to submit a proposal.

iPlant anticipates taking on two to four community-chosen grand challenge questions by the end of its first year, and more in future years. The cyberinfrastructure the collaborative builds will be custom designed to meet the needs of the specific questions selected. Categories of questions on which the iPlant community might choose to focus include, but are not limited to, questions about how plants grow from single cells into complex, multicellular organisms; how and to what extent plants can adapt to environmental changes; how plants have evolved in the past and their potential to evolve in the future; and how plants live together with other organisms in ecosystems.

Solving grand challenges is crucial, says University of Arizona plant sciences professor and iPlant director Richard Jorgensen, Ph.D., because plants affect every aspect of our lives. Everythings connected, he explains. As our climate and environment change we need to have a deep understanding of the biology of plants from the molecular to the ecosystem level in order to understand and mitigate the problems that will arise to adapt as best we can and to focus our efforts on saving the organisms and ecosystems that are most important to save.

"Biology has become an information science," says Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory researcher Lincoln Stein, Ph.D., a co-principal investigator on the project. "However, many in the plant research community lack the computational skills and tools [needed] to take full advantage of the wealth of information that is out there. The iPlant cyberinfrastructure seeks to level the playing field by making sophisticated databases, modeling tools and visualization systems available to everyone."

The conference will be webcast live to allow researchers to participate actively in the conference from anywhere in the country or the world. Up to three simultaneous live feeds are anticipated to be webcast from the Laboratory, with moderators on hand to field questions and discussion from remote attendees.

The conference will also address iPlant's commitment to reaching out to K-12, undergraduate and graduate students at a session on training the next generation of scientists in computational thinking. Ultimately, students, teachers and the public will all have access to iPlants resources and data, as well as to educational tools designed to help them understand that data and develop inquiry-based learning modules. iPlant offers an unprecedented opportunity to involve teachers and students in leading-edge biology, explains iPlant investigator Vicki Chandler, Ph.D., director of the University of Arizonas BIO5 Institute.

With plant genome sequences freely available online, this is the first time in the history of biology that students can potentially work with the same information, at the same time, and with the same tools as research scientists. We want to help teachers move their students into this real-time collaboration with plant scientists, noted David Micklos, Executive Director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratorys Dolan DNA Learning Center.


Contact: Jim Bono
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

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