UNC Awarded $4.5 Million by US EPA to create the Carolina Environmental Bioinformatics Research Center

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced a five-year award of $4.5 million to UNC-Chapel Hill to establish the Carolina Environmental Bioinformatics Research Center. This award is a major investment by the EPA, and is one of only two such environmental bioinformatics research centers funded by the agency in a recent nationwide search. The new UNC Center was initiated through efforts of the Carolina Environmental Program (CEP), and will be led by the university's Carolina Center for Genome Sciences (CCGS).

The new Center will work closely with the EPA's National Center for Computational Toxicology, located nearby in Research Triangle Park, NC, and is a unique organization that includes members from the UNC Schools of Public Health, Medicine, Pharmacy, Library and Information Sciences, and the College of Arts and Sciences. The interdisciplinary approach brings together experts in the fields of biostatistics, computer science, environmental sciences and engineering, genetics, medicinal chemistry, and chem-informatics. The goals of the Center are to develop innovative methods and tools for improving linkages in the source-to-outcome paradigm, hazard identification and quantitative risk assessment; to provide an efficient and rapid resource for interaction with environmental scientists and regulators; and to translate and apply the scientific discoveries of the Center into open-access, web-based resources for policy makers and the public.

Recent technological advances are providing unprecedented opportunities for interdisciplinary teams of scientists to apply basic environmental sciences research to ecology and public health. Fred Wright, Ph.D., associate professor in UNC's Department of Biostatistics, will direct the Center. "The cross-disciplinary, collegial nature of research at Carolina provides an excellent basis for interactions among Center members and with EPA's Computational Toxicology Program," says Wright. "Importantly, key Center members already lead active programs in bioinformatics and computational aspects of environmental science, genetics, toxicogenomics, and traditional mechanistic toxicology."

The Center consists of three research projects that are organized around the functional areas of data analysis, methods development, and tools implementation. Project 1 (Biostatistics in Computational Biology - Fred Wright, P.I.) will provide biostatistical support to the Center, perform data analysis, and develop new methods for the computational toxicology community. Project 2 (Chem-informatics - Alex Tropsha, P.I.) will coordinate the compilation and mining of data from relevant chemical and toxicity databases, and perform analysis and methods development for investigating quantitative structure-toxicity relationships. Project 3 (Computational Infrastructure for Systems Toxicology - David Stotts and Ivan Rusyn, co-P.I.s) will create a framework for merging data from various -omic technologies in a systems biology approach and provide programming support for the other Projects. In addition to Wright, Tropsha, and Rusyn, other CCGS faculty contributing to the Center are Mayetri Gupta, Fei Zou, Yufeng Liu, David Threadgill, Wei Wang, and Brad Hemminger.

The Center will advance the field of computational toxicology through the development of new user-friendly methods and tools that will be widely disseminated and will be useful to environmental scientists, biomedical researchers, and computational biologists. "We believe that the synthesis of data from a variety of sources will move the field of computational toxicology from a hypothesis-driven science toward a predictive science, with more precise risk assessment, for overall improvements in public health and the health of ecosystems," concludes Wright.

 November 8, 2005