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The use of computer analysis and modeling helps bioinformatics researchers—such as the centers in North Carolina and New Jersey that recently received EPA grants—identify, predict, and understand biological processes, and determine how such processes can affect public health. Source: Research Center for Environmental Bioinformatics and Computational Toxicology at the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey

When it comes to tackling public health threats, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That's the thinking behind the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's decision to award two grants—totaling $9 million—to further bioinformatics studies at two university research centers.

Bioinformatics is the art of using computers in biological research to analyze or predict molecular composition and evaluate changes to genes and proteins—computational molecular biology. The data generated can help scientists further understand normal biological processes, the malfunctions in these processes that lead to diseases, and how chemicals and pathogens can affect the environment and public health. While bioinformatics is not a new science, widespread interest in the field has taken hold in the past 10 to 15 years.

The EPA began looking closely at bioinformatics in 2002, after the U.S. National Research Council recommended in its report Classifying Drinking Water Contaminants for Regulatory Consideration that the EPA incorporate biogenetics in identifying and assessing emerging water-borne pathogens. In 2004, the EPA opened the National Center for Computational Toxicology (NCCT), dedicated to research and application of bioinformatics studies. The center's work—which brings together several disciplines—is complex.

“You can't just look at this data in the classical sense and do analysis with a handheld calculator,” said Jerry Blancato, NCCT deputy director. “Bioinformatics uses the latest computational and data-mining techniques and tries to look for things those data show that wouldn't otherwise be visible.”

The Research Center for Environmental Bioinformatics and Computational Technology at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, Piscataway— recipient of a $4.5 million, five-year grant— brings together a team of computational scientists with backgrounds in bioinformatics, chemistry, modeling, and environmental studies with Rutgers, Princeton, and other schools. The Carolina Environmental Bioinformatics Research Center at the University of North Carolina. Chapel Hill, another grant recipient, boasts a similarly diverse staff of experts. Research at the two centers is designed to complement the EPA's body of work in increasing understanding of public health risks and, down the road, help determine which substances make the list of drinking water contaminants regulated by the agency.

“The multidisciplinary research approach at these two centers will lead to more efficient, effective assessment of the hazards and risk of chemicals to humans and the environment,” said Robert Kavlock, NCCT director.

Research at the centers will focus on how chemicals can negatively affect public health and the environment, and provide predictive models to screen and test various chemicals. While the research has the potential to impact many areas, the implications for increasing the safety of America's water supply is of particular interest to public works officials.

“Our work, as well as the excellent toxicological efforts at the EPA, will produce a more refined understanding of acceptable levels of risk and exposures, while acknowledging that some levels of exposure may be unavoidable,” said Fred Wright, director of the Carolina center. “Thus, the greatest impact is in terms of improving the health of humans and ecosystems.”

A short history of bioinformatics

1953 Scientists propose double-helix model for DNA

1958 The first integrated circuit is constructed