The new institute will focus on modelling animal diseases such as foot and mouth. Credit: M. Mendez/AFP/Getty Images

A new US institute that will be part funded by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will aim to become the world centre for collaboration between mathematicians and biologists.

The National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) will bring mathematical approaches to problems across biology, with a particular focus on modelling the dynamics of animal disease. The National Science Foundation (NSF) will, within a week, announce that the University of Tennessee in Knoxville has beaten 18 other proposals to host the centre.

"We want to become the place people think of first in linking mathematics and biology," says the institute's director Louis Gross, a mathematical ecologist at the University of Tennessee. "Mathematical biology has traditionally been one little corner of biology. We want to move it to a central role."

The institute's creation reflects the growing strength of mathematical biology, and growing concern about the potential impact of animal diseases on agriculture and human health, as shown by outbreaks worldwide of foot-and-mouth disease, avian influenza and SARS. Four-fifths of emerging human diseases cross over from animal infections, says Tam Garland, branch chief for agricultural security at the DHS.

"A whole series of events has raised concerns within the federal government that this is something we need to be aware of," says Samuel Scheiner, programme director in the NSF's division of environmental biology. Modelling has already proven its ability to predict and help control disease outbreaks, he says — for example, understanding the population cycles of hantavirus, which crosses from small mammals to humans, has allowed disease peaks in the southwest United States to be forecast and reduced.

"Modelling is a decision tool," says Garland. "What we're supporting with this centre is fundamental research and growing the next generation of researchers." A long-term goal, she adds, is to be able to distinguish natural outbreaks from possible deliberate release.

Other institutes like this have had a tremendous global impact.

Besides ecology and evolution, which already have strong mathematical components, NIMBioS aims to bring mathematics to parts of biology that it has so far had little impact on, such as development and immunology.

The US government has pledged NIMBioS US$16 million over five years. Of this, $11 million will come from the NSF and $5 million from the DHS. The aim is to do basic research, not provide, say, rapid-response advice on vaccination or culling in response to a disease outbreak.

NIMBioS plans to supplement its budget partly through contract work, providing simulations and analyses for land managers. The institute has also signed up IBM and ESRI, a geographical software company based in Redlands, California, as industry partners, although neither has contributed funding so far. Gross anticipates an annual operating budget of about $5 million.

Most of the core funding will be spent on about a dozen postdoctoral positions, and on working groups bringing together 8–15 researchers to study a particular problem in a series of two or three approximately week-long meetings spread over a couple of years.

The eight or nine groups planned in the first year include investigations of the links between the mathematics of invasive species and cancer metastasis; the dynamics of social networks in animals; and modelling the spread of pseudorabies among feral pigs in the southern United States.

This approach mimics that of other NSF-funded centres such as the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), founded in 1995 and based at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

"Other institutes like this have had a tremendous global impact," says Alan Hastings, a theoretical ecologist at the University of California, Davis. Work at the NCEAS has been important in giving applied ecology a scientific underpinning, such as in the design of marine reserves, he says. "The NCEAS changed the way people do ecology."

A 20-strong international governing board will review NIMBioS proposals for quality, and to avoid duplicating the work of existing centres such as the NCEAS and the Mathematical Biosciences Institute at Ohio State University in Columbus.

Mathematical biology is growing worldwide, but European groups tend to be "dispersed and specialized", says Wolfgang Alt, a theoretical biologist at the University of Bonn, Germany, and president of the European Society for Mathematical and Theoretical Biology.

Japan is in a similar position to Europe, says Nanako Shigesada, a theoretical ecologist at Doshisha University in Kyoto and president of the Japanese Society for Mathematical Biology. "Having a research institute covering all areas of mathematical biology, including ecology, evolution, developmental and cellular and subcellular processes is very important," she says.