This month, the DFG announced the winners of their new Bioinformatics Initiative. Out of the 31 proposals handed in for assessment, an international jury awarded 20 million DM each to five new centers of excellence at Bielefeld, Munich, Leipzig, Saarbrücken, and Tübingen. The newly funded research and training centers will considerably increase the number of Germany's young scientists trained in the young interdisciplinary field of bioinformatics.
In contrast to existing programs funded by the DFG and Ministry of Research and Education, such as the German Human Genome Project, the new initiative requires winning proposals to increase the number of young scientists trained in bioinformatics over the next decade. "So far, young bioinformaticians had to be recruited from biology, informatics, or medicine. Then they usually need additional training in the respective complementary fields and this made the procedure very time-consuming," explains Jens Reich, head of the bioinformatics department of the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC).
A second aim of the initiative was to overcome the rigid academic guidelines and habits that interfere with the growth of the developing interdisciplinary field, explains Ingrid Ehses, coordinator of the DFG's projects on genetics, cell biology, and molecular biology. While for many other fields of research still a mere phrase, interdisciplinarity is one of the true challenges for bioinformatics. "Insights and methods in biology, chemistry, pharmacology, and computer science have to be combined to structure the huge amounts of data from the worldwide attempts to decode the hereditary factors of microorganisms, plants, animals, and humans." Says Ehses: "We want this initiative to stimulate universities and research institutions to create new research infrastructure, making the most of the already existing local capacities."
Accordingly, most of the winning contributions succeeded by fastening the ties between universities and other local research capacities such as local Max Planck Institutes. In Munich, for example, several institutions such as Ludwig Maximilian University, Technical University, the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry, and the GSF Research Centre for the Environment and Health joined forces to establish a network of bioinformatics in teaching and research.
The DFG expects the new programs to be very popular. "Universities will become more attractive by offering forward-looking courses. At the same time, universities will provide highly qualified training for urgently required young bioinformaticians for academic research as well as industry," Ehses explains.
And the future for bioinformaticians looks bright: "Almost every experimental group will need experts who can link the local data to the world knowledge base and vice versa," says Peer Bork, the biocomputing research group leader from Europe's Molecular Biology Laboratory. "It will often be a bioinformatician who generates the right hypothesis that determines the success of an experiment or who speeds up knowledge creation." Adds Reich: "There is plenty of work to be done in this borderline area between biomedicine and informatics. Many intriguing puzzles wait to be solved by people's ingenuity."