Princeton and Microsoft collaborate to tackle fundamental challenges in microbiology

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Princeton University
Nov. 29, 2018

Princeton University has teamed up with Microsoft to collaborate on the leading edge of microbiology and computational modelling research.   

In this project, Microsoft is helping Princeton to better understand the mechanisms of biofilm formation by providing advanced technology that will greatly extend the type of research analysis capable today. Biofilms — surface-associated communities of bacteria — are the leading cause of microbial infection worldwide and kill as many people as cancer does. They are also a leading cause of antibiotic resistance, a problem highlighted by the World Health Organization as “a global crisis that we cannot ignore.” Understanding how biofilms form could enable new strategies to disrupt them. 

Ned Wingreen
Ned Wingreen, the Howard A. Prior Professor in the Life Sciences and professor of molecular biology and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics. Photo by Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications
To support Princeton, a Microsoft team led by Dr. Andrew Phillips, head of the Biological Computation group at Microsoft Research, will be working closely with Bonnie Bassler, a global pioneer in microbiology who is the Squibb Professor in Molecular Biology and chair of the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, and with Ned Wingreen, the Howard A. Prior Professor in the Life Sciences and professor of molecular biology and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics.

Using the power of Microsoft’s cloud and advanced machine learning, Princeton will be able to study different strains of biofilms in new ways to better understand how they work. Microsoft is contributing a cloud-based prototype that can be used for biological modelling and experimentation that will be deployed at Princeton. This work combines programming languages and compilers, which generate biological protocols that can be executed using lab automation technology. It allows experimental data to be uploaded to the cloud where it can be analyzed at scale using advanced machine learning and data analysis methods, to generate biological knowledge. This in turn informs the design of subsequent experiments, to provide insight into the mechanisms of biofilm formation. Princeton is contributing world-leading expertise in experiments and modelling of microbial biofilms.  

“This collaboration enables us to bring together advances in computing and microbiology in powerful new ways,” said Brad Smith, president of Microsoft. “This partnership can help us unlock answers that we hope someday may help save millions of people around the world.”

“By combining our distinctive strengths, Princeton and Microsoft will increase our ability to make the discoveries needed to improve lives and serve society,” said Christopher L. Eisgruber, president of Princeton University. “Technology is creating new possibilities for collaboration, and we hope this venture will inspire other innovative partnerships in the years ahead.”

Pablo Debenedetti, Princeton’s dean for research, said: “We are delighted to be collaborating with Microsoft to advance scientific innovation with this new project, investigating the fundamentals that underlie urgent biomedical problems. Doing cutting-edge research that helps define the boundaries of knowledge and that could ultimately benefit society at large is what we strive for at Princeton.”

Princeton’s relationship with Microsoft is one of the University’s most extensive with industry, spanning collaborations in computer science, cybersecurity and now biomedical research.

As a global research university and leader in innovation, Princeton University cultivates mutually beneficial relationships with companies to support the University’s educational, scientific and scholarly mission. The University is guided by the principle that initiatives to fortify and connect with the innovation ecosystem will advance Princeton’s role as an internationally renowned institution of higher education and accelerate its ability to have greater impact in the world. 

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