Advent of the digital test tube

February 7, 2003

Cambridge's Unilever Centre for Molecular Informatics is moving research from the chemistry bench to the IT lab

Inside a new pyramid-topped laboratory close to Cambridge city centre, chemists at the Unilever Centre for Molecular Informatics are charting a future for their discipline in which entire research programmes can be carried out almost entirely in silico . Theirs is the era of the virtual lab coat and digital test tube.

They are even planning a new language that they hope one day all chemists will use when communicating science with one another. Robert Glen, professor of molecular informatics and director of the centre, is leading the push.

The centre, with its staff of 35, has been open for only two years, but Glen is already talking in terms of making it a world leader in the creation, manipulation and storage of molecular data. "We're looking at a move towards in silico management of the research process," he says. "We're integrating technologies that allow you to move from an idea all the way through to a product - either an academic research output or a real product that could be sold - within computers."

The multinational Unilever invested £13.5 million in the project to meet the cost of the building and the salaries of key staff for the next 15 years. Other industrial sponsors lavished £800,000 on a variety of projects last year alone. One project is seeking to develop a chemical mark-up language that could establish standards for the entire academic community.

The work has been backed by a £250,000 grant from the Department of Trade and Industry and is linked to a host of bodies, including the European Bioinformatics Institute, the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the US and the World Health Organisation.

A new language would provide the underlying grammar and dictionary to allow chemists to communicate more efficiently.

Glen says this might help enable data gathered in specific projects to be used in other research. He says that numbers emerging from research are usually pumped into databases without the necessary information to reveal why the data are relevant or how they can be used. A new language that could reveal the richness of the data would help to tackle the problem.

There are other projects looking at developing tools to enable chemists to bring together disparate sources of data and forge new discoveries from them. While some of the work is clearly aimed at a practical end, it is currently only at a fundamental level.

There will always be a central place for in vitro experiments in chemistry, but Glen's team wants to ensure that the computer bench, and not the lab bench, is established as the chemist's natural home.

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