updated 1/31/2008 6:43:26 PM ET 2008-01-31T23:43:26

A collaboration of botanists and computer scientists is being awarded a $50 million federal grant to conduct research into plant biology with an eye toward resolving global problems related to agriculture, environment and energy production.

The five-year National Science Foundation grant announced Wednesday will pay for research on topics such as climate change, development of biomass energy, and agricultural land use, said foundation Director Arden L. Bement. The University of Arizona is leading the project.

"This is truly revolutionary," Bement said of the linkup of plant and computer scientists.

"Plants obviously feed us, clothe us. They're all around us. It's a huge part of our lives," said Richard Jorgensen, a University of Arizona plant sciences professor and director of the iPlant Collaborative, an Internet portal for plant science study.

"We really can't get by without plants, and ecosystems depend heavily on plants so everything about our lives really depends on plants and the more we can understand about plants, the better we'll be able to live in harmony with the biosphere."

The collaborative expects to develop the ability to map the full range of plant biology research in much the same way that Google Earth and Mapquest use mapping technology. Researchers could then use the application to "zoom" in and out of various levels of plant biology, from the molecular to the ecosystem, the grant administrators said.

All of the iPlant projects will feature education components open to students ranging from kindergarten to the university postgraduate level, the foundation said.

The University of Arizona said it will receive 79 percent of the funding, with the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York getting 16 percent. Other participating institutions include Arizona State University, Purdue University and University of North Carolina-Wilmington.

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano hailed the grant as a "great return" on Arizona's investment in higher education research. Those include a share of revenue from a sales-tax increase approved by voters in 2000 and borrowing approved by the Legislature in 2003 for construction of new university research facilities.

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