Iowa State University’s Patrick Schnable, left, and Srinivas Aluru.

Iowa State University researchers have won a fierce National Science Foundation competition to finance so-called “BIG DATA” projects.

Nearly 200 institutions applied for the money, but only eight grants were awarded. Iowa State University’s Srinivas Aluru will be leading the researchers who got a $2 million BIG DATA grant.

“I’m a computer scientist and one of the things I’m really excited about is how much our discipline is needed in order to advance biology, life science and medical research these days,” Aluru says.

“The volume of data is so huge through pretty much any experience that no human can directly analyze the data.”

Aluru’s team includes researchers at Stanford, Rutgers, Virginia Tech and the University of Michigan, as well as another Iowa State faculty member. They’ll be trying to come up with new methods to analyze the massive amounts of data medical researchers are getting from DNA sequences.

“The biology researcher is not going to directly look at the results and only going look at the analysis by the computer,” Aluru says. “It is very important that we understand enough of the biology and build it in properly to the computer tools so that they don’t miss anything valuable.”

Biologists are advising the computer experts on how the bits of medical data should be compared, separated and analyzed. When DNA sequencing began, medical researchers could look at one piece of DNA at a time. But today, one experiment generates billions of bytes of data.

“And there is no way for a researcher to take a look at the results of the experiment directly,” Aluru says, “so this is where we come in, where you have to double-up computer-based tools to analyze the data and then present the results to the biologist.”

The tools Aluru’s team are trying to develop will work on several computers at the same time, to crunch through all the data quickly, and then present results to the medical researchers. It’s sometimes called “Next-Generation Sequencing.”

Aluru teaches Bioinformatics and Computational Biology to graduate students at Iowa State.

Photo by Bob Elbert/Iowa State University.