Israel Joins Europe's ELIXIR Bioinformatics Effort

Israeli universities will bolster the world’s largest biological database, which aims to chart the genetic code of every living known creature.

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Israeli researchers hope to play major role in ELIXIR, the world’s largest biological database (illustration).Credit: Reuters

Israel has joined ELIXIR, a European organization whose goal is to orchestrate the collection, quality control and archiving of biological data produced by life science experiments, and which holds the largest database of DNA and protein sequences in the world.

Under the membership agreement, signed Sunday by the Science and Technology Ministry, Israel will set up a national center for bioinformatics that will be operated by an inter-university forum of researchers, and the ministry will allocate 200,000 shekels ($58,000) annually to enable Israeli scientists to contribute to and access the database.

The database contains a broad range of biological data and computational infrastructures that were developed in publicly funded research conducted in the member countries. Now that Israel has joined the organization, accumulated data from Israeli research will be added. ELIXIR is spearheading one of the most ambitious projects in the history of humankind – to store, share and assure the preservation of biological information for generations, including the genetic code of every living creature on Earth known to science.

This shared genetic information ranges from short DNA strings and tiny pieces of proteins to whole genomes that contain all the instructions for the production and development of a living creature. The thousands of species whose genetic information will be shared on the database will include dangerous pathogens such as viruses, bacteria and fungi; plants important to humanity like tomatoes, corn and wheat, and creatures that are vital to sustaining vital ecosystems around the world, like rain forest tree species and coral, and endangered species like the panda bear.

The genetic information in the database is essential for the study of common diseases such as cancer, diabetes, strokes and atherosclerosis, as well as rare illnesses and genetic syndromes, or those particular to certain ethnic groups.

Israel is the ninth country to join as a co-founder and member of the organization, which to date includes the United Kingdom, Sweden, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Norway, the Netherlands and Denmark.

A bioinformatics center expected to open in Israel will be run by an inter-university forum headed by Prof. Michal Linial, director of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The center will develop methods for training scientists and medical teams from around the world to use the various databases for research and clinical work.

“Medical, environmental and agricultural sciences have undergone a really dramatic revolution in the last decade,” says Linial. “Since human genome sequencing, biological research has gone from being descriptive, detailed research to analytical and quantitative research that asks questions based on massive amounts of data.”

She notes that this is important news, not just for the scientific community but for the public at large.

“Imagine that you can go to your doctor and give him a disk-on-key with your entire genome on it, or that you could download your genome from the Internet cloud and send it with your smartphone to his computer. The doctor will press one button and be able to compare your genome to the genomes of the ethnic group to which you belong. If he sees differences in your genome compared to the population of that same ethnic group in a segment that oversees essential cell activity, he can press another button, and if it’s a treatable disease he’ll be able to immediately get information about the proper treatment.”

Science and Technology Minister Jacob Perry added, “Israel leads the world in the field of computational biology, along with Switzerland, and has advanced programs in bioinformatics at every one of the country’s research universities. As part of the agreement, Israel will have a significant role in the organization and will be a leader in it.”

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