The funds were awarded as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act by the National Center for Research Resources in support of the Maine INBRE, for which the MDIBL is the lead institution. INBRE (IDeA Network for Biomedical Research Excellence) is a federally funded network that links MDIBL and The Jackson Laboratory with eleven Maine colleges and universities. Its goal is to strengthen Maine’s capacity to conduct biomedical research by supporting junior faculty and research training for Maine undergraduates.
Dr. Patricia Hand, administrative director of MDIBL and principal investigator for INBRE, says that “this grant represents a big step for the state of Maine. It means our scientists and students will no longer be isolated by distance or bandwidth. The effects of this stimulus grant will be felt long after the new equipment is installed and the sequencing project is concluded.”
A portion of the stimulus grant will purchase the optical equipment that allows fiber optic cable to move the large quantities of data involved in bioinformatics – the collection and analysis of complex biological data such as genetic codes. The cable will be laid or “pulled” by a commercial company, with INBRE leasing some of the many strands of optical cable. That means that improved cyberinfrastructure will be available to facilitate internet connectivity for other users in northern and coastal Maine as well.
Jeff Letourneau, Acting Executive Director of Networkmaine for the University of Maine System, says these federally-funded research leases are critical to commercial providers of fiber optic capacity. He likens the leases’ role to that of an anchor store in a mall, increasing the likelihood of a successful return on the developer’s capital investment. Letourneau also notes that the fiber paths themselves are being funded, in part, by an EPSCoR grant from the National Science Foundation. He notes, “It takes all these pieces of funding to try to complete the puzzle of creating a high speed fiber optic network throughout Maine. The challenge in Maine is just too big for any one grant or any one entity to solve.”
Installation of the cyberinfrastructure improvements will occur in two phases over two years. Phase one involves installing specialized networking equipment called Dense Wave Division Multiplexing along the coastal route between Portland and Ellsworth. The following year, during phase two, equipment will be installed on the northern route between Bangor and Presque Isle. Improvements in this northern route will also position Maine to develop a link to the Canadian research and education network.
These additional routes will provide seamless regional access in the Northeastern U.S. to large sets of scientific data and to increased computational capabilities. They will therefore also require substantial data storage capacity. A portion of the grant will fund increased storage capacity at MDIBL to support database, imaging, and microscopy resources available to institutions across Maine. A biostatistician will also be hired at MDIBL to provide additional statistical expertise to help scientists and students analyze these large data sets.
To demonstrate the collaborations and complex research that these improvements make possible, the stimulus grant is supporting a genome sequencing project for the Little Skate. Scientists and students in three small or rural states will be involved in the project. The genetic material will be prepared at MDIBL and sent for sequencing to the University of Delaware Sequencing and Genotyping Center. Bioinformatics specialists at the Vermont Genetics Network and MDIBL will assemble the sequences, and University of Delaware and MDIBL scientists will then coordinate the sequence annotation (discerning the identity and function of genes). A new training program in genomics will allow Maine students and junior investigators to get hands-on experience in bioinformatics and participate in community genome annotation alongside senior scientists and database curators.