Plant biologists were offered a dream ticket last week: US$50 million to address the biggest challenges in their field. But the money comes with a catch. It can't be used to generate new data, only to create user-friendly computational tools. And, perhaps hardest of all, researchers have to persuade others in the field to collaborate on how to spend the funds.

The offer was presented at the inaugural meeting of the iPlant Collaborative, a project funded by the US National Science Foundation to address 'grand challenges' in plant biology. During the coming months, researchers will form grand-challenge teams to hammer out proposals. The hope, says iPlant director Richard Jorgensen of the University of Arizona in Tucson, is that the project will generate new interdisciplinary collaborations and deliver useful computational tools to the community.

Many at last week's meeting, held at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York, were sceptical. Some thought it premature to shift the focus away from data collection when many databases are contaminated with poorly described experiments and low-quality data. Others wondered if iPlant would meet the same fate as several previous cyberprojects that were abandoned once funding ran dry.

iPlant plans to adopt an open-source model, in which users are encouraged to develop the programs to suit their needs. That could extend the life of iPlant computational tools beyond the day that the project ends, but only if a wide community is motivated to develop them. For Jorgensen, one of the earliest challenges has been encouraging participation from ecologists and evolutionary biologists and not just molecular biologists.

Early suggestions for grand challenges include understanding the effects of climate change to modelling how a single cell becomes a multicellular plant. Because the iPlant organizers want ideas to come from the community, they offer little guidance on what a grand challenge ought to be. As a result, preliminary brainstorming sessions were meandering and unfocused. “It's a creative chaos,” says Jorgensen. “As long as we don't let it drive us completely off the cliff, we're fine.”