Apr 20, 2016

Ruan and Sunter receive $683K NSF grant to develop bioinformatics tools for plant biologists

UTSA computer science associate professor Dr. Jianhua Ruan and UTSA biology professor and department chair Dr. Garry Sunter has been awarded a 3-year $683,839 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The award will support the development of bioinformatics tools for modeling networks of interacting molecules in Arabidopsis—a small mustard plant and popular model organism in plant biology, and use the tools to study the plant's immunity to a virus infection. Uncovering the plant-virus interaction network is of fundamental importance in plant physiology and has significant economic and environmental impacts, such as improving crop yields and reducing pesticide use.


While biologists can measure the presence and amounts of tens of thousands of molecules in a cell all at once, understanding how they are connected, the 'networks' or 'systems' that lead to function, is a much harder problem. As a result, the huge amount of data from biological experiments does not automatically lead to deeper biology insight. To bridge this gap, Ruan and Sunter plan to computationally improve the quality and coverage of gene networks in Arabidopsis and to develop network-based data analytic algorithms that can generate more specific hypotheses and more accurate predictive models to be tested in the laboratory. While the current focus is on plant-virus interactions, the methodology and tools developed in this work can also significantly improve the ability to study the role of co-regulated networks of genes in other processes, including but not limited to genes implicated in both plant and animal diseases, cancer or stem cell biology.