Life sciences research at Penn State advancing rapidly

University Park, Pa. -- New, powerful technology has life sciences researchers on the cusp of what Penn State biologist Peter Hudson calls a "tsunami of data," that is changing the way research is performed, making the integration of traditional laboratory work and computer analysis more critical than ever.

Facilitating collaboration among researchers and analysts across an array of scientific disciplines, Penn State's Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences in 2011 will move into a new space in the Millennium Science Complex -- a 275,000-square-foot facility it will share with the Materials Research Institute.

"We've developed what we think is the most exciting interdisciplinary space this University has ever seen," said Hudson, director of the Huck Institutes. "We're going to have these people cheek-by-jowl, having coffee together, in a space designed so they are constantly in contact with one another. Their students will be sharing the same space so they will learn in a new way how to understand the bigger issues. I'm trying very hard to break down the barriers within the life sciences, and this building will help us do that in a very novel way."

The Huck Institutes was developed to stimulate this kind of interdisciplinary research and today its four major institutes and numerous centers -- researching big questions in infectious disease, genomics, plant sciences and neurosciences -- are at the cutting edge of life sciences study.

Hudson noted that neuroscience, for example, involves neurosurgeons from the College of Medicine, faculty from the College of Engineering who examine brain development and psychologists from the College of Health and Human Development, among others. Infectious disease issues may involve molecular biology, virology, immunology, epidemiology, physics, entomology, veterinary sciences, climatology and more.

"They are actually very broad areas of science and we have a huge diversity of expertise," Hudson said.

Penn State's expertise in genomics, the study of organisms' genetic material, has been well documented. Biologists Stephan Schuster and Webb Miller (also a computer scientist) received international attention and were named to Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People last year for their work in sequencing the DNA of the extinct wooly mammoth. Miller and Schuster also played prominent roles in the recently reported sequencing of the genomes of South Africans, including that of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

That study of the individual variations of the human genome and their far-reaching implications represent a new era in life sciences that will result in the "data tsunami," Hudson explained. Finding a way to manage all of that data will be of significant importance -- the convergence of biology and computer science has created a new field called bioinformatics -- and Penn State has already positioned itself to handle the task.

Anton Nekrutenko, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, has led the development of Galaxy, a Web-based framework for the easy retrieval and analysis of the mountains of genome data being produced.

"The technology in data handling is increasing at the same time as the data is increasing, but then you have the issues of how we take the data from the instruments producing it to put it in front of the faculty and students working on it," Hudson said. "At the same time we're going to have to change the way we do biology. A large number of biologists that used to be wet lab biologists are now more involved with computer-based analysis of these data. We're going to have to bring real computer scientists closer to the life sciences. I think at Penn State we all agree that's one of the challenges we're going to get more involved in."

New facilities in the Millennium Science Complex will provide obvious collaborative opportunities for researchers in the Huck Institutes. While the connections may not be as readily apparent, the building also will provide the opportunity for potentially groundbreaking interaction with the Materials Research Institute as well.

"We're looking to do interdisciplinary science in a new way and really push the boundaries by being closer to materials," Hudson said. "We're looking to see how we can share some of the technology both sides are interested in. At the end of the day it comes down to intellectual interaction. We're going to find intellectual ways to inform each other about some of the problems we have and how they relate to the materials side, and vice versa. The best way to get collaboration is just to have people sit down together."

For both graduate and undergraduate students, the interdisciplinary approach can help create a new generation of scientific and policy leaders who have developed a holistic understanding of the issues of the day.

"We've got to train students to be the next generation of people who will make decisions and understand what's going to happen," Hudson said. "By putting the computational side next to the wet lab space, we're going to get an appreciation of both sides of the science."

That eye toward the future plays a major role in the Huck Institutes efforts. Developing new, effective ways to answer major questions is among the Institutes most pressing jobs.

"Our task is to take research in the life sciences to the next level," Hudson said.

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Last Updated February 27, 2014