The potential collapse of TAIR’s funding threatens the field of plant genomics.
“The first people to go will be the computational biologists,” Huala said. As these researchers rely upon publically accessible data, they are unlikely to pursue plant research if the information is not readily available. If computational biologists leave plant genomics, plant biology may fall behind animal research, Huala said.
Other biologists also may be driven away from plant research. Because it provides graphical, easy-to-use interfaces, TAIR gives researchers access to genome-based data without requiring them to write computer programs, Rogers said.
Innovation vs. Infrastructure
Continuing to fund research infrastructure often runs counter to the NSF’s focus on funding innovative research. When a resource or program like TAIR ceases to be innovative, the NSF would like to use its limited budget in other places, Huala said.
Indeed, TAIR may have fallen victim to an emphasis on new innovations in sequencing technology.
“With the flood of genomic data, it may not be the best expenditure to put so many resources into a few species,” said Scott Roy, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University. A computational biologist, Roy said model organisms may begin to occupy a smaller percentage of genome data that technological advances have made inexpensive to produce. However, the direction of the field is still uncertain, Roy said.
But, although financial resources may limit their numbers, genomic databases have “a tremendous utility to inform closely related genomes,” Huala said.
Additionally, though new sequencing technology can produce staggering amounts of raw data, genome databases integrate sequence information with gene descriptions and relevant publications. Some databases also are repositories for unpublished data and minor comments that would not otherwise be available.
Without genome databases, “that kind of information would be lost,” Rogers said.