Virginia Tech Magazine
Summer 2008

The Virginia Bioinformatics Institute: Looking to the future

The Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI) at Virginia Tech was founded in 2000 to become a premier institute for internationally competitive research, education, and outreach. In just under eight years, VBI has developed strong research capabilities in the life sciences and achieved a solid foundation for further growth. Today, the institute employs more than 230 faculty and staff members and currently has more than $90 million in active extramural research funding from a broad range of sponsors, including the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the United States Department of Defense, the United States Department of Agriculture, and others.

VBI continues to develop high-quality, internationally competitive research initiatives in areas as diverse as bioinformatics, systems biology, high-performance computing, complexity science, and policy informatics. The institute plays a key role in helping Virginia Tech become an internationally renowned research university, one that contributes to the scientific and economic development of the Commonwealth of Virginia and beyond. Now, as VBI looks to the next stage of its development, the institute is in an ideal position to benefit from future opportunities in infectious disease research, public policy informatics, economic development, and science education.

The origins and expansion of VBI

An entrepreneurial spirit gripped the imagination of the individuals who shaped the early days of VBI's development. Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore and Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger were acutely aware that biotechnology would become the new economic engine of growth in the 21st century. They believed that opening a bioinformatics center could contribute in a major way to Virginia Tech's advancement in life science research. The Tobacco Indemnification and Revitalization Commission, which was created by the General Assembly to promote economic growth in Virginia communities, approved $12.3 million from the state to help fund the development of VBI. Bruno Sobral took the reins as executive and scientific director and the institute opened its doors in July 2000 at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center.

By 2003, VBI had reached a point that it was ready to occupy new premises on the Virginia Tech campus. The first phase of the move to a new facility began in December 2003. In January 2005, VBI completed the second phase and now occupies more than 130,000 square feet on the corner of Washington Street and Duck Pond Drive, while still maintaining a presence at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center.

It was during this time that the institute's core facilities became fully operational in VBI's new location. The Core Laboratory Facility (CLF) is the data generation machine of VBI's core facilities, functioning as a multi-user resource for the development and application of high-throughput technologies used in the analysis of DNA, RNA, and proteins. The Core Computational Facility is the data management and analysis machine of the core facilities, providing computer resources to support data visualization, data mining, and a wide range of biological applications.

The CLF is a cost-recovery center with a current customer base of more than 480 principal investigators, which includes clients from VBI and Virginia Tech, other universities, small biotechnology companies, and federal agencies. One of the largest core facilities in an academic setting in the United States for numbers of samples processed, the CLF includes a custom-built Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS), which allows for efficient tracking of sample and workflow information and seamless processing of raw data and primary results.

VBI today
Virginia Bioinformatics Institute

"In the past, we laid a strong foundation by developing the institute, recruiting faculty and staff, and establishing a portfolio of extremely competitive research programs," Sobral says. "Today, VBI is at the cusp of an expansion--a transition into new programmatic areas that will help develop and create new opportunities for our unique environment of transdisciplinary research."

VBI's common challenge is infectious disease research, and researchers at the institute are working to find new treatments and cures for the many diseases that affect humans, other animals, and crops. Scientists at VBI develop bioinformatics information and tools to support scientific discoveries. This team-based approach to the life sciences involves collaboration in diverse disciplines such as mathematics, computer science, biology, plant pathology, biochemistry, statistics, economics, synthetic biology, complexity science, and systems biology.

"Transdisciplinary research is the foundation of the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute," says Sobral. "Our achievements arise from a collaborative culture geared to stimulate creativity and generate innovation. It is this culture that allows us to make significant contributions to the development of life science knowledge, technologies, and useful products aimed at society's needs."

In June 2007, an independent review of VBI evaluated the quality and direction of research underway at the institute. Four internationally known scientific experts and a committee chairperson participated in an extensive review. The panel's findings that VBI has developed strong capabilities and remarkable visibility in a very short time were persuasive.

VBI continues to grow at a considerable pace as it pursues its research goals and development path. The objectives remain to foster excellence in fundamental and applied academic research by addressing far-reaching scientific projects through transdisciplinary or team science approaches to research. In the years ahead, VBI will closely explore innovative ways to transfer technologies and competencies from academic to industrial settings. In the long term, this approach will serve to stimulate business development and promote new employment opportunities.

To accommodate VBI's future development and growth, a new 50,000-square-foot addition is planned for the main building on the Virginia Tech campus. The three-story extension will include office space that supports the relocation of VBI's Network Dynamics and Simulation Science Laboratory from the Corporate Research Center, as well as the anticipated expansion of cyberinfrastructure and other research group activities. The building will also include additional meeting spaces designed to foster interaction and team science collaborations.

The institute is ideally poised to take advantage of the new opportunities that will arise in infectious disease research, public policy, economic development, and science education.

Barry Whyte is strategic and research communications officer for the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, and Susan Bland is the institute's public relations practitioner.

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