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Birney Receives Franklin Award

By Maureen McDonough

June 14, 2005 |’s Jeff Bizzaro presented British bioinformatician Ewan Birney with the 2005 Benjamin Franklin Award at the Bio•IT World Expo on May 19.

The Franklin Award, named for the great scientist who refused to patent his inventions, annually recognizes an individual “who has promoted free and open access to the methods and materials used in the scientific field of bioinformatics.”

Birney was recognized for his work on the Ensembl project, a joint venture between the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. Ensembl is a software system and Web portal that provides free online access to annotated genomic data. The site currently provides access to the annotated genomes of 16 vertebrates.

Birney spoke about the importance of contributing information to the public domain. “Open publication is the bedrock of scientific discovery,” he said. He commended Venter for making the marine data generated from the Sorcerer II expedition available to the public.

Ensembl, which Birney co-led, is completely open. Not only does the site provide full access to the data and coding scripts; users can download the entire software system. Because of this option, Ensembl is running remotely at approximately 200 sites.

By taking advantage of what Birney called the “Geek for a Week” program, laboratories can send a representative to EBI to learn how to use the Ensembl software system. The Ensembl team will also send one of their own staff to provide onsite training. In either case there is no fee for the instruction, and only travel expenses need to be reimbursed.

Birney also spoke about a new project  called Reactome, an open-source project designed to store biological pathway data. “This information is in papers and people’s heads,” he said. The goal of Reactome is to make an explicit data model so that cellular signaling pathways are formulated in a computer-readable system.

Reactome’s interactive map, which Birney dubbed “the starry sky,” focuses on human biological pathways and includes reactions from rat, mouse, and zebrafish.

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