New collaboration to supercharge data-driven life science research

Monday 21 Sep 2020

A collaboration between The Alan Turing Institute and The Norwich Bioscience Institutes will enhance the ways machine learning and artificial intelligence are applied to life science research.

With biological research becoming increasingly data rich, the collaboration will help identify new ways to exploit this wealth of information and accelerate advances in understanding.

The Alan Turing Institute will work with The Norwich Bioscience Institutes - including the Earlham Institute, the John Innes Centre, Quadram Institute and The Sainsbury Laboratory - in a £600,000 project to kickstart collaborations applying machine learning and AI to life science research. Half of the funding will come from The Alan Turing Institute’s ‘AI for Science and Government’ Strategic Priorities Fund award, with the other half coming from a strategic award from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (UKRI-BBSRC).

The funding will support up to six year-long research posts who will work together in a cross-institute cohort to expand the application of machine learning and artificial intelligence to several key areas, which may include:

  • Identifying cell types using a deep neural network
  • Characterising the circadian rhythms of plants
  • Understanding how genetic changes affect plant structure, influencing crop yield
  • Finding the weapons used by plant pathogens to invade plants

As technologies for capturing information - from DNA sequences through to high resolution images - become ever cheaper and more widely available, so do the reams of data associated with that. Making sense of huge datasets can create bottlenecks in research projects and, importantly, discoveries.

Machine learning offers a promising route into not only exploring that data, but also helping to find hidden patterns and new hypotheses never previously considered.

“Data driven science has the potential to improve the lives of hundreds of millions worldwide,” said Professor Neil Hall, Director of Earlham Institute and lead PI on the bid. “Over the last ten years our ability to generate vast datasets has increased rapidly, and this collaboration will allow us to better use that information for public good. To work alongside The Alan Turing Institute, with all their expertise in machine learning, is fantastic for the future of UK life science research.”

The Alan Turing Institute's Programme Director of Data Science For Science Jon Rowe said that “this is a significant new collaboration for the Turing which offers new opportunities for advancing data-driven science. To be able to combine our expertise in machine learning and artificial intelligence with the expertise of the Norwich Biosciences Institutes is an exciting prospect and will allow us to help solve real-world problems in bioscience”

“This is a significant new collaboration for the Turing which offers new opportunities for advancing data-driven science. To be able to combine our expertise in machine learning and artificial intelligence with the expertise of the Norwich Biosciences Institutes is an exciting prospect and will allow us to help solve real-world problems in bioscience”

Professor Anthony Hall, Head of Plant Genomics at the Earlham Institute, said: “We’re really pleased to start this collaboration with a like-minded institute, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with data-driven science. It’s exciting to think of the fundamental and applied work that will benefit from this.”

Professor Richard Morris, Group Leader in Computational and Systems Biology at the John Innes Centre, said: “Computational approaches such as AI and ML also have tremendous scope for advancing hypothesis-driven research by removing the limitations imposed by more traditional methods. Learning patterns from data can automate, reduce bias, and massively speed up key steps in research and, importantly, suggest connections that may have escaped the human mind. The Alan Turing Institute is a world leader in driving these key computational developments and we are delighted to have won this partnering award with them to develop collaborations and boost these extremely powerful and exciting techniques within the Norwich Bioscience Institutes.”   

The Institutes have already collaborated on machine learning projects with real world applications. Scientists at the Earlham Institute and John Innes Centre have recently worked together on SeedGerm, an automated tool that analyses images to help crop breeders monitor seed germination rates. 

The Alan Turing Institute has collaborated with researchers from the John Innes Centre in using AI methods to understand gene expression patterns in brassicas, and to explore complex new biochemical synthesis pathways.

In another project, Earlham and Quadram Institute researchers have developed machine learning algorithms to understand complex interactions in the gut, some of which are being applied to the current COVID pandemic. Furthermore, an international aquaculture development project has seen EI scientists contribute machine learning to an app which can tell apart native and farmed tilapia species.

Applications are invited for Computational Biologists/Data Scientists to join the Norwich Bioscience Institutes on a joint venture with The Alan Turing Institute. Find out more and submit your application.

Notes to editors:

Earlham Institute

The Earlham Institute (EI) is a world-leading research Institute focusing on the development of genomics and computational biology. EI is based within the Norwich Research Park and is one of eight institutes that receive strategic funding from Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council (BBSRC) - £5.43m in 2017/18 - as well as support from other research funders. EI operates a National Capability to promote the application of genomics and bioinformatics to advance bioscience research and innovation.

EI offers a state of the art DNA sequencing facility, unique by its operation of multiple complementary technologies for data generation. The Institute is a UK hub for innovative bioinformatics through research, analysis and interpretation of multiple, complex data sets. It hosts one of the largest computing hardware facilities dedicated to life science research in Europe. It is also actively involved in developing novel platforms to provide access to computational tools and processing capacity for multiple academic and industrial users and promoting applications of computational Bioscience. Additionally, the Institute offers a training programme through courses and workshops, and an outreach programme targeting key stakeholders, and wider public audiences through dialogue and science communication activities.

The Quadram Institute

Quadram Institute’s mission is to deliver healthier lives through innovation in gut health, microbiology and food and its vision is to understand how food and microbes interact to promote health and prevent disease.

The Quadram Institute is an interdisciplinary research centre at the forefront of a new era of food and health research. It brings together researchers and clinicians under one roof and houses one of Europe’s largest endoscopy units and a clinical research facility.

Based on the Norwich Research Park, the Quadram Institute is a partnership between Quadram Institute Bioscience, the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, the University of East Anglia and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

The John Innes Centre

The John Innes Centre is an international centre of excellence in plant science and microbiology.

Our mission is to generate knowledge of plants and microbes through innovative research, to train scientists for the future, to apply our knowledge of nature’s diversity to benefit agriculture, the environment, human health, and wellbeing, and engage with policy makers and the public.

Our vision, Healthy Plants, Healthy People, Healthy Planet aims to secure a safer, healthier and more sustainable future through the power of plant and microbial science. 

For more information about the John Innes Centre visit our website

The Sainsbury Laboratory

The Sainsbury Laboratory is a world-leading independent research institute that specialises in plant-microbe interactions, funded by The Gatsby Charitable Foundation, The University of East Anglia and UKRI-BBSRC. Its work is focused on leading global efforts to reduce crop losses to disease.