A pan-European project that aims to develop a sustainable infrastructure for sharing biological data resources to support life science research across the EU has secured €4.5 million in funding from the European Commission.

The European Life-science Infrastructure for Biological Information (ELIXIR) consortium is led by the European Molecular Biology Laboratory’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) and involves 32 partners from 13 countries, such as the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education & Research, Italy’s Council for National Research and the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics.

The project, which is being funded under the European Union’s Framework 7 Capacities Programme for Research Infrastructures, has its roots in a roadmap published in 2005 by the European Strategic Forum for Research Infrastructures. This identified 35 large-scale European infrastructure projects, including the creation of a shared platform for data resources in the life sciences, based on a major upgrade of the facilities, data resources and services provided by EMBL-EBI.

The European Commission subsequently issued a restricted call to the projects identified by the Strategic Forum for funding proposals covering preparatory planning. The preparatory phase of the ELIXIR project is one of two three-year periods and involves consultation with the stewards and users of Europe’s current biological resources to define the requirements, attributes and structure for a sustainable, integrative bioinformatics network for the life sciences.

In the implementation phase of ELIXIR, the results of the preparatory phase will be reported and sustainable financial support sought from national funding bodies.

The key issues to be addressed in the consultation phase are:

- How best to ensure integration and interoperability between core and specialist data resources, including the development of standards to facilitate data collection in newly emerging fields.
- How the network can most effectively connect with other interdisciplinary fields to yield the most progress in medicine, agriculture and the environment.
- How to meet the needs of related industries in Europe.
- Providing training to Europe’s life science researchers so they can effectively exploit the information made available through the ELIXIR infrastructure and its component resources.

The broader aim of ELIXIR is to protect existing and future information held in biological data resources, explained the European Bioinformatics Institute.

Since the 1980s the storage mechanisms for biological information have evolved from notebooks and published academic papers to open-source databases of integrated information exchanged worldwide on a daily basis, it pointed out. However, these sources are often “dependent on insecure or short-term funding, meaning that the valuable data they contain, and provide access to, are jeopardised when funding ends”.

A sustainably funded infrastructure for biological information in Europe will support innovation in life science research as well as knowledge generation and its translation to medicine, the environment, the bio-industries and society, the EBI added. “Developing a securely funded, integrative infrastructure will give Europe one voice in the global community, meaning that we can make connections and realise those benefits more quickly by working together,” commented EMBL-EBI director and ELIXIR co-ordinator Janet Thornton.

The EBI, which grew out of the EMBL’s work in providing public biological databases to the research community, is located on the Wellcome Trust Genome Campus in Hinxton near Cambridge, UK. Its collections of biological data include DNA sequences, protein sequences, three-dimensional structures and protein-protein interactions.