For decades, tobacco was an engine for North Carolina’s economy. Now, it’s the sole focus of a bank of computers in a laboratory building on Centennial Campus. In a refrigerator-cold room, the humming machines run nonstop, continuously performing simulations or checking data obtained by NC State researchers against information from other scientists. The goal: Identify at least 90 percent of the genes in the tobacco plant.

The five-year Tobacco Genome Initiative (TGI), funded by cigarette maker Philip Morris USA, should soon blow past that target, says Dr. Charles Opperman, who directs the project together with fellow plant pathology professor Dr. Steve Lommel. But sequencing the genes is only a first step, Opperman says, and much more science is needed to achieve the ultimate goal— application to plant biology. Tobacco is a key laboratory species and can help researchers better understand metabolism and disease resistance in other plants. “We’re trying to take digital data and turn it into biology,” he says. “Experimentation is still needed to understand what the genes do.”

Tobacco plants have about 50 percent more genes than humans, TGI bioinformatics manager Mark Burke says, so NC State researchers try to sort through the mass of DNA by using sophisticated computational analysis to identify known genes and computer models to predict the presence of previously unknown genes. Based on characteristics of genes identified in other plants, the models look for similar characteristics in tobacco and predict a possible gene whenever a match is found. Burke, a biologist with a passion for computers, says more study can then be done to determine whether the predictions are, in fact, genes and to find their functions. “There are large regions of DNA that have no known function,” he says, “but who knows what we’ll find out about them in the future?”

The Bioinformatics Research Center (BRC) is trying to answer that question. Statisticians and geneticists mine the data collected by TGI and other projects for leads to determine the function of specific genes. “The genome sequence only gives us a blueprint,” BRC Director Zhao-Bang Zeng says, noting his researchers examine the evolution of genes in various plants and animals and the impact of small genetic differences. Biologists then follow those genetic leads to develop useful applications of that knowledge, such as creating plants that grow faster or fight off pests, Opperman says. “Marrying computational science with wet-lab experiments,” he says, “is the future of biology.”