iPlant Collaborative receives $50 million renewal grant

Nicole Cobler

The world of plant biology is a mouse click away from researchers at UT, thanks to a renewed $50 million grant that will help fund the iPlant program. 

The program is a website that builds cyber infrastructure to support plant and animal science research. Developed in partnership with the Texas Advanced Computing Center at UT, it received this five-year grant to continue the project, which started in 2008.

iPlant works to provide tools for plant scientists, including ways to store data, create their own work environment for public use and share large data sets in one space. 

“We make computation and storage available to researchers,” iPlant deputy director Dan Stanzione said. “We also build some of the user-facing tools like web-based environments to make it easier for those doing things like genomics research.”

Specific tools provided by the iPlant program include DNA Subway, a way for researchers to predict and annotate genes, and the iPlant Tree of Life, which allows for a way to navigate easily through genomics and molecular evolution.

The renewed grant increases the National Science Foundation’s investment in the project to $100 million to advance researchers’ understanding of biology. It also allows iPlant to expand its scope to scientists who study crops and livestock and to continue reaching those from all levels of expertise.

iPlant is based at the University of Arizona and partners with the Texas Advanced Computing Center at UT, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

“In iPlant, we’re trying to do all the other things that you need to do just between putting up a supercomputer and getting productive computational science done,” Stanzione said.

Many facilities, including the UT Genomic Sequencing and Analysis Facility, use iPlant for their computational needs.

The facility’s director, Scott Hunicke-Smith, said his center has used the program for more than a year.

“It’s a huge benefit to UT just to have that capability here,” Hunicke-Smith said.

Researchers can create free iPlant accounts to use tools such as mapping the links between genotypes and phenotypes, understanding phylogenetic relationships between all plant life and even using their own data to run tests on it.

Biology junior Eric Dawson is the only student at Texas Advanced Computing Center who works on iPlant: Benchmarking. Dawson works on installing and optimizing the applications to make them more accessible to users. He said the grant adds to the University’s research capabilities.

“It puts the whole world of plant biology at the fingertips of anyone who wants to use it,” Dawson said.