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Informatics research boosted by European funding

Informatics research in Europe has been bolstered by The European Commission which is providing €89 million to the 'Human Brain Project' alongside a €1.5M grant from the European Research Council to enable the study of cereals resistant to pathogens and diseases.

The Human Brain Project is made up of six new informatics-based platforms across Europe which aim to accelerate scientific understanding of the human brain, make advances in defining and diagnosing brain disorders, and develop new brain-like technologies.

One of these projects, based at the University of Manchester is called SpiNNaker (short for Spiking Neural Network Architecture), a computing platform made up of 500,000 microprocessors that emulate the way brain neurons fire in real time. SpiNNaker can be used to accurately model areas of the brain, and to test new hypotheses about how the brain might work. This biological approach to robot control is very different from the algorithmic systems more commonly used in robotics.

The Human Brain project aims to deliver a collaboratively-built first simulation of the human brain by 2023, which will not be a complete replication of every detail, but will provide a framework for integrating data and knowledge about the human brain from worldwide research and clinical studies. The 10-year project began in 2013 and involves leading scientists at more than 100 universities and research centres across Europe and in the USA, China, and Japan. It is focused on six ICT research platforms: neuroinformatics (access to shared brain data), brain simulation, high-performance analytics and computing, medical informatics (access to patient data), neuromorphic computing (access to brain-inspired computers), and neurorobotics (use of robots to test brain simulations).

The flagship project has just received €89 million boost from the European Commission. Commenting on the announcement, Steve Furber, ICL Professor of Computer Engineering at The University of Manchester’s School of Computer Science, said: 'We are very pleased that the funding for the next phase of the Human Brain Project has been confirmed, enabling us to continue to offer the SpiNNaker platform to our growing international user community and to progress the development of a second generation machine.'

Thomas Skordas, acting director of the European Commission Digital Excellence and Scientific Infrastructure Directorate, said: 'The Human Brain Project is now ready and well-prepared to begin its next phase. We have established the right basis for the project to make significant progress in the coming two years towards reaching its overall goals'.

Meanwhile, the European Research Council (ERC) has also provided additional funding to European informatics with the announcement that the Earlham Institute (EI) and The Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL) has been awarded a €1.5M Starting Grant (over five years) to investigate the immune system of our most important crops.

This research will help to shed new light the crops immune system and could help scientists create new genetic solutions for protecting plant health and future sustainable crop production.

Dr Ksenia Krasileva, group leader for the research project, stated: 'We propose to combine next generation sequencing and bioinformatics methods, as well as molecular biology techniques, in order to unravel how the grasses can keep up with ever-persistent diseases, and eventually generate new ways that our most vital crops can withstand them.

Fungal diseases and highly virulent plant pathogens endanger global production of food crops, considerably reducing yields. They can be fought with fungicides and pesticides, yet these substances are not always safe for humans and the environment. Plants, however, have a natural ability to detect and disarm rapidly evolving pathogens, including viruses, bacteria, insects and fungi. Their powerful defence mechanisms rely on a particularly rich arsenal of plant immune receptors.

Krasileva and her group will investigate NLR-ID receptors, proteins which have proliferated for at least 500 million years and serve as ‘baits’ for pathogen molecules. The research will examine how these receptors diversify in maize, rice, and wheat. Using this genetic information to help generate new methods to protect plants from pests and disease. She explained: 'Through first identifying how plant disease receptors have diversified within the genomes of the grasses, to then unravelling the mechanisms by which they work, we can then use this knowledge and apply engineering to plant breeding – in order to keep our fields healthy and stave off the tide of disease-causing pests that ravage our crop yields and threaten global food security.'

Dr Diane Saunders, fellow of EI and JIC, will also receive funding from the ERC over the next five years to investigate the molecular mechanisms driving host adaptation of yellow rust on cereal crops and grasses.

The European Research Council (ERC) has announced its Starting Grants to 325 early-career researchers throughout Europe. The funding, worth in total €485 million and up to €1.5 million per grant, will enable them to set up their research teams.

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