Molecular databases go global

April 11, 1997

SCIENTISTS in Asia and Eastern Europe are plugging into the molecular biology databases of the leading industrial nations, a rich source of knowledge that could be applied in medicine and farming.

The International Bioinformatics Network, sponsored by Unesco, was launched last week at Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science. It will give scientists in remote areas of China, India, Poland and Turkey access to an explosion of data in molecular biology which their colleagues in the United States, Japan and western Europe are already using.

The benefits will flow both ways. "Once this gets started, the information about the partners will be useful even to these developed countries," said project coordinator Meir Edelman of the Weizmann Institute's plant genetics department.

Professor Edelman said that the network would offer newsletters, tutorials, web pages and online help over the Internet. "It will be a support-type network, between the partners."

But the project is not relying on the Internet for access to the master databases: international connections to developing countries are still too slow. Instead, copies of the databases will be maintained at regional mirror sites. "We have the facilities and the ability to download databases and their updates," said Professor Edelman. "We copy the databases and their updates on to CD-Roms, and transfer these by Federal Express 'snail mail' to the regional nodes."

The new network is a project of the International Centre for Cooperation in Bioinformatics (ICCB), which is based at the Weizmann Institute. The regional nodes in each country will be in close contact with the hub, which will run a help desk and offer scientific training and technical workshops.

Funding for the project includes seed money of $230,000 from Unesco over the past three years; computer equipment and services, networking and partial salaries for two people from the Weizmann Institute, worth about $600,000; fellowships of $10,000 a year from Cobiotech, a company which supports ICCB; $20,000 from Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and seed money from Compugen, an Israeli biotech company and Mahyco Hybrid Seeds Company in Bombay.

Scientists in western Europe and Israel are already connected to a central databank through the European Molecular Biology Network (EMBnet). Professor Edelman said that the new Israel-based network will be the equivalent of EMBnet for the developing world. It will provide access to the databases of the European Bioinformatics Institute in the UK, the National Center for Bioinformatics in the US and the DNA Database in Japan.

* The project to interconnect Europe's broadband research networks missed its target of being fully operational by the end of March, but completion of the remaining segments of the core network is "very close" according to David Hartley, chair of the TEN-34 consortium.

The TEN-34 network is being assembled from a number of existing pieces. At the heart of the network is a 34 megabit per second leased line between Germany and Switzerland. Unisource, a consortium of public network operators, is providing Internet Protocol (IP) links between the UK, the Nordic countries, the Netherlands and Switzerland. The so-called FUDI section (from the initial letters of France, UK, Germany and Italy) handles IP traffic transparently over asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) switching technology.

"The Unisource bit has been delayed because they had problems getting one of their circuits from London to Stockholm," Dr Hartley said. "It is due in the next week or so. It is all very close."

The FUDI countries have been waiting for a circuit between Germany and Italy. Eventually the network is likely to include links to Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Luxembourg, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain.

The major Internet applications - email and the web - will account for most of the traffic on TEN-34. Individual academics will not be aware that they are using TEN-34, though they may notice that "the Internet has got faster".

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