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15 Years of IGB: Collaborative initiatives at the forefront of science

BY Shelby Lawson

One of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology’s main goals is fostering partnerships between departments across campus to encourage more trans-disciplinary research. Initiatives provide an avenue for this goal, bringing researchers across departments, study systems, and disciplines together and encouraging collaborative research. Here we highlight the initiatives that the IGB has been involved with during the 15 years since its inception.

CompGen Initiative
Genomics data contains billions of data points that require a lot of expertise and computing power to analyze. The CompGen Initiative, established in 2014, was created to alleviate this issue, combining the strengths of genomics research at IGB with the high-performance technology and computational abilities of computer scientists. The initiative created collaborations between biologists and computer scientists across campus to be able to analyze large sets of genomic data. The initiative was awarded funding from both NSF and NIH to create new instruments for genomic data storage and analysis, along with a community database of genomic data from studies. This database, the Knowledge Network, serves as resource of prior knowledge of genes and networks embedded in an analysis platform called KnowEnG, that is used for genomic information management and integration of that information. By combining genomic findings across multitudes of studies, and using new algorithms and models to analyze this pool of data, researchers can improve accuracy and scalability of their findings leading to new discoveries on how genomics inform life and evolutionary processes.

Throughout the years, teams utilizing the KnowEnG platform have been able to explore causes of disease and potential new treatments, expedite the sequencing of genomic data from humans, and increase our understanding of how genomic variations influence the traits we see across several species. In addition, KnowEnG also worked as an educational tool for both classrooms and corporations to manage genomic data and explore connections between genes and phenotypic traits.

Personalized Nutrition Initiative
Nutrition has a large impact on human health and wellness, but nutritional needs can vary by individual, making diet recommendations that could improve quality of life less accurate. The Personalized Nutrition Initiative was established in 2020 to facilitate transdisciplinary collaborations across campus to research individualized nutrition, and create a source for information on how nutrition impacts health and disease.

The initiative’s research spans across multiple model organisms and biological disciplines, providing insights on how nutritional needs vary on a wide scale. The goal of the program is to be able to provide tailored recommendations on nutrition that take into account not only a patient’s history and phenotype, but their genetics, microbiome, and metabolome as well. Researchers in the initiative are looking at the impact of these measures on propensity for disease, cognition and learning, physical well-being, and more. The Initiative also brings together engineers and computer scientists with biologists to improve analytics for measuring nutritional impacts on health.

The Personalized Nutrition Initiative hosts seminars on the research being conducted both at the campus and beyond, and also features a newsletter with the latest information on research, government/organization press releases, news from nutritional wellness groups, and more. The initiative has hosted Personalized Nutrition Innovation Day multiple times, a seminar where researchers can present new data from their nutritional studies.

Microbial Systems Initiative
Despite their small size, microbes make up a large portion of biomass on earth, second only to plants, and they can exist nearly everywhere, from the inside of our guts to the bottom of the ocean. Yet, with how populous and diverse microbes are, there is so much still unknown about them. The Microbial System Initiative was established in 2018 to bring together microbial researchers across campus and create an integrative, collaborative community. By connecting researchers from over 50 campus units, the initiative aims to evoke more interdisciplinary projects, provide avenues for support and training, and ultimately increase our understanding of microbes through impactful research.     

MSI hosts a variety of seminars, symposiums, and collaboration-building events meant to spark new questions and connections within microbial research in the community. One of the priorities for the initiative is training a diverse set of next-generation researchers. As such, there are numerous workshops and training sessions provided to give skills to trainees, along with a new recruitment program meant to help new hires find success in the program.

Thus far, MSI has led to new methods for detection of microbial diseases in humans, including COVID-19, novel treatments for disease, and a better understanding of how microbiomes influence behavior and health.

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