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$7.5 Million for Biodiversity, Computer Projects

September 17, 2003 — University of Utah researchers have won more than $7.5 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for two new research projects:

— Plant taxonomist Lynn Bohs, an associate professor of biology, was awarded a five-year grant of $4.36 million to conduct a worldwide inventory of an economically important group of plants that includes tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and certain medicinal plants.

— Chemistry Professor Thanh Truong obtained a four-year grant of $3.2 million to create an online “laboratory without walls” for researchers who need access to high-performance computers and databases to conduct scientific and engineering research that requires the use of computers.

Inventorying Life on Earth

Bohs’ project is one of four nationally that were funded through the NSF’s Planetary Biodiversity Inventories program. She will lead an effort to create a comprehensive inventory – accessible through an online database – of all of the estimated 1,500 species of plants in the genus Solanum.

This group, which is one of the largest genera of flowering plants on Earth, includes not only tomatoes, potatoes and eggplants, but also a number of lesser-known crops in tropical and subtropical regions, as well as poisonous weeds such as nightshade and sources of medicinal compounds.

Several large-scale efforts are underway to study the genes involved in agriculturally useful traits of plants in the genus Solanum. The large group of plant species also is used to study improved plant breeding, plant pollination and the evolution of fruit characteristics. Yet there is no comprehensive database of the names and relationships of plants in Solanum.

Bohs’ study will develop a detailed database on the plants by searching herbarium and seed collections worldwide, augmented by efforts to collect plants in Latin America, Africa and Madagascar.

What Bohs and colleagues compile will not be a simple list of plant species. Instead, it will be a systematic, scholarly treatment of plants on Solanum, including descriptions of different species, judgments on how many species exist, their characteristics, how to distinguish them, their habitats and distributions, a guide to identify them and digital images of the various species.

“Because of the worldwide economic importance of Solanum in agriculture, information obtained from this project will benefit society as a whole by enhancing breeding programs for the improvement of cultivated species,” providing information that will aid the effort to determine the genetic blueprint of Solanum species, and contributing to efforts to conserve wild plants in the genus, according to the NSF.

Bohs will conduct the project with scientists at the New York Botanical Garden, University of Wisconsin and Natural History Museum in London, along with numerous national and international collaborators.

The grant to Bohs is among four receiving a total of $14 million in the NSF’s Planetary Biodiversity Inventories program for 2003. The other three projects will inventory all species of catfish, a certain group of plant-feeding insects and slime molds. The program is a joint effort by the NSF, the ALL Species Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Bohs will travel to New York for a formal announcement of the projects during a Sept. 23 news conference at The Explorers Club.

An Online Laboratory without Walls

“The World Wide Web has been revolutionizing the way we communicate since its invention in the last decade,” Truong says. “E-mail is becoming an alternative official form of written communication, and chat is an alternative to telephone conversation. Virtual universities allow students to obtain education without the restrictions of course schedule and location.”

Now, say Truong, scientists are “looking into the WWW technology to help revolutionize the way science is conducted and taught.”

That is the idea behind the $3.2 million grant to Truong and colleagues to “create a laboratory without walls for computational science and engineering.”

The laboratory – named Computational Science and Engineering Online (CSEO) – really will be a worldwide network of “virtual laboratories.” It will allow researchers at computers and web browsers at any location to use state-of-the-art software, access and analyze information from databases, share and discuss results with colleagues, teach classes and access computing power beyond that available in their local areas.

An initial version of the laboratory without walls is available at

Truong leads the effort. His University of Utah collaborators include Chuck Wight, professor of chemistry; Tom Cheatham, assistant professor of medicinal chemistry; and physicist Julio Facelli, director of the university’s Center for High Performance Computing. Another collaborator is Brigham Young University physicist James Lewis.