Major bio-IT shake-up at CSIRO

By Pete Young
Wednesday, 27 March, 2002


CSIRO's major bioinformatics group is being re-organised and consolidated in a plan that could involve spinning off part of it as commercial operation.

The exercise will position Sydney as the new centre of gravity for the bioinformatics resources of the CSIRO Mathematics and Information Sciences (CMIS) division.

It will act as a hub for commercially-oriented research and its Sydney staff count is likely to double to 10.

The Sydney grouping could eventually be transformed into a start-up company, said CMIS biotechnology manager Dr Mervyn Thomas. But he cautioned the outcome involves "a formal CSIRO process of which we are only in the very early stages."

Smaller CMIS bioinformatics units of about five researchers each will be maintained in Melbourne and Canberra.

They will continue the division's collaboration with multi-agency groups which have a strong public sector flavour, such as Victoria's bioinformatics consortium and the Centre for Agricultural Genomics in Canberra.

Thomas will re-locate to Sydney from Brisbane in the new financial year.

The consolidation is taking place because CSIRO recognises the benefits of creating a critical mass of bioinformatics researchers, he said.

Any discontent that might exist among staff members facing re-location because of the consolidation exercise has not come to his attention, Thomas said.

He suggested most have generic skills in areas such as advanced statistical analysis which are in demand and are unlikely to feel personally threatened by consolidation plans.

CMIS harbours the largest bioinformatics research capabilities of CSIRO's 22 divisions.

It is focused on functional genomics - where it has filed four patents in the past year - and the area of automated image analysis.

Both play to CSIRO's strengths in massively multi-variate data mining developed through its work in remote sensing.

While genetics and remote sensing might seem far removed, the core problem of extracting meaningful information from masses of data is the same, Thomas said.

High-throughput assays automated via image analysis and robotics customarily produce large volumes of information which are not deeply detailed.

CSIRO's abilities in high contact assays provide deeper detail by allowing detection of changes in cellular and sub-cellular structures treated by test compounds.

Its image analysis skills are currently deployed in commercial relationships with two companies: Axon Instruments and Proteome Systems.

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