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UK Research and Innovation

14 March 2019, 2:01 UTC Share

£45 million boost for big data bioinformatics research to drive discovery

A £45 million boost to data and building infrastructure will support major advances in areas such as drug discovery, cancer genetics, regenerative medicine and crop disease prevention over the coming decades.

Bioinformatics – the science of analysing, storing and sharing large biological datasets – is essential to discovering how genes affect the health of humans, plants and animals.

EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI), in Cambridgeshire, is a renowned global leader in bioinformatics. Life scientists all over the world use EMBL-EBI’s infrastructure to share and access data to drive cutting-edge research in genomics and molecular biology. EMBL-EBI is currently supporting major scientific programmes including:
•UK Biobank – genomic data from 500,000 volunteers is distributed via EMBL-EBI’s European Genome-phenome Archive
•Human Cell Atlas – EMBL-EBI is contributing to the creation of the Data Coordination Platform which will enable scientists from all over the world to define every cell in the human body
•Tara Oceans – EMBL-EBI is making available molecular data from marine plankton collected from across the world’s oceans to explore how they are impacted by changes in the Earth’s climate

Making the announcement, Science Minister Chris Skidmore said:

“People around the world are affected by food security, diseases that could be prevented and access to effective medication. Through the vital datasets made available by EMBL-EBI many of these issues can – and are – being prevented.

“That is why the government has invested 45 million to boost the work being undertaken at the Institute, and why boosting the UK’s genomics sector is a key commitment in our Life Sciences Sector Deal, to avoid premature deaths and to ensure food security for years to come.” 

The new funding, delivered through UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) Strategic Priorities Fund, working closely with the Wellcome Trust, will support for the growing need for data resources and associated building infrastructure to underpin the biological data management and analysis, provided by EMBL-EBI.

UKRI Chief Executive, Professor Sir Mark Walport, said: 

“Our ability to process, access and interrogate large volumes of data is absolutely crucial to scientific discovery in the 21st Century, none more so than in health and life sciences where the fields of genomics and molecular biology are fuelling major advances.

“This funding enables EMBL-EBI to continue to grow its global leadership in large biological datasets and bioinformatics, which are used by researchers all over the world, every day of the week.”

Discovery research today is driven by scientists having access to large, openly shared data sets of many different types, spanning genes, proteins and the behaviour of small molecules.

In the last five years, approximately 20 petabytes of new biological data has been deposited into EMBL-EBI resources – equivalent to the capacity of 20,000 laptops with one terabyte of storage each. This data growth is likely to intensify due to the diverse use of genomic data in biotechnology, medicine and agriculture and the rise of new technologies, such as single-cell sequencing, and cryo-electron microscopy.

This investment will expand EMBL-EBI’s data-handling capacity by an enlargement of its technical IT infrastructure, supporting the growing demand for open access biological data sets, and the academic and commercial need for expertise and skills in biological data management

Dr Ewan Birney, Director of EMBL-EBI, said:

“EMBL-EBI websites receive over 38 million requests for data or analysis every day. The demand for our data resources has risen dramatically in the last decade and we expect this trend to continue, so we need to be ready for when it happens. Building a robust and accessible data infrastructure is crucial for the life science discoveries of the next decades.” 

This new funding also supports the emerging use of machine learning across the life sciences. Machine learning requires the kind of large, quality-controlled datasets that EMBL-EBI specialises in curating to derive insights that turn ‘big data’ into knowledge.

The Strategic Priorities Fund is being delivered by UKRI to drive an increase in high quality multi- and interdisciplinary research and innovation; ensure that UKRI’s investment links up effectively with government research priorities and opportunities; and ensure the system responds to strategic priorities and opportunities. 


The UK is a founding member of the EMBL, a not-for-profit intergovernmental organisation established in 1974 and now funded by 25 member states, including much of Europe and Israel, and two associate members, Argentina and Australia.


The European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) is a global leader in the storage, analysis and dissemination of large biological datasets. We help scientists realise the potential of ‘big data’ by enhancing their ability to exploit complex information to make discoveries that benefit humankind.

We are at the forefront of computational biology research, with work spanning sequence analysis methods, multi-dimensional statistical analysis and data-driven biological discovery, from plant biology to mammalian development and disease.

We are part of EMBL, Europe’s centre of excellence in life science research, services and training. We are located on the Wellcome Genome Campus, one of the world’s largest concentrations of scientific and technical expertise in genomics.



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