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PNNL leads way in systems biology

March 01, 2004 Share This!

RICHLAND, Wash. – The exploration of life's fundamental building blocks, through the study of proteins and other chemicals that drive all functions in living organisms, is one of the most exciting, important and growing areas in science today and it's taking place right here at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

This new field of 21st Century biology, called systems biology, draws heavily upon the interplay among the biological, physical and chemical sciences. Also key to this research is the incorporation of novel, world-class instrumentation that is vital for the collection and analysis of data at the smallest scale. It is this mergence of interdisciplinary research coupled with excellent science tools that is allowing new information to be collected at unprecedented levels and which will lead to solutions for some of our nation's most pressing problems.

Many of these solutions will be born from PNNL research funded by the Department of Energy's Office of Science, such as our studies of how unique, radiation-resistant or metal-reducing organisms could be used in environmental cleanup processes. In other DOE-funded research, we are studying agricultural and forest biomass to understand the natural processes of biomass conversion and then to harness those conversions to make commodity and specialty products from biomass rather than petroleum. We'll also see significant breakthroughs for human health as we better understand how diseases originate in the body. This knowledge will result in the development of earlier detection methods as well as more targeted and effective medical treatments.

DOE is preparing to invest in up to four new science facilities to further advance its genomes program. About a decade ago, DOE launched the human genome project that, through the involvement of the National Institutes of Health and private industry, resulted in the sequencing of the human genome, a major breakthrough in science. These new facilities hold the potential for even greater long-term benefits that go well beyond environmental cleanup and medical applications to mitigating the effects of global warming and to developing new energy sources. The laboratory is well positioned to compete for a new DOE life sciences facility to be located at our Richland campus, as well as to partner with other national laboratories for the other facilities.

PNNL is ideally suited for large-scale genomic research - especially the analysis of proteins at the cellular level - because of our strengths in interdisciplinary research, and through unique science tools we acquire and custom-develop to conduct research. Many of these world-class instruments are available at the William R. Wiley Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL), enabling our researchers to understand and manage how cells sense and respond to their environments.

Mass spectrometry is the premier tool for analyzing proteins under any set of conditions, and EMSL houses among the most diverse, powerful and unique set of mass spectrometers located under one roof in the world. With this suite of powerful mass spectrometers, scientists can more quickly answer questions of how proteins, and thus cells, operate. Advanced microscopes and antibody based molecular probes have also been developed to observe the function of these proteins in living cells.

A single cell can express many thousands of proteins, and analyses of these proteins create massive amounts of data and a huge computational challenge. Also located at EMSL is one of the most powerful open supercomputers in the world dedicated to science research. We are also partnering with industry in the development of highly advanced computers designed specifically for solving problems involving the immense data sets that stem from analyzing proteins.

The Tri-Cities, state and region will profit from our continued growth and success in systems biology and biotechnology research. We are pursuing collaborations and partnerships with leading research organizations in Seattle, like the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Institute for Systems Biology, and the University of Washington, that will benefit from access to the unique equipment and high technology staff that will only be available through these new DOE facilities. We are also charting new ground to ensure that the high-speed computational infrastructure necessary for handling massive amounts of data is available and rooted to the Tri-Cities and Seattle area for the benefit of the region's scientific community, which is a key element of the state's economic health and diversity, and which will serve national needs.

Establishment of a new $200 million to $300 million research facility at our Richland campus also brings important economic growth to the Tri-Cities, along with about 200 new, scientific jobs and a growing spotlight to the area for world-class research.

Tags: Energy, Fundamental Science, EMSL, Operations, Biomass, Biology, Mass Spectrometry, Cancer Research, Facilities

Interdisciplinary teams at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory address many of America's most pressing issues in energy, the environment and national security through advances in basic and applied science. Founded in 1965, PNNL employs 4,300 staff and has an annual budget of about $950 million. It is managed by Battelle for the U.S. Department of Energy. For more information, visit the PNNL News Center, or follow PNNL on Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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