With the advances in modern imaging technologies, the wealth of digital biological imaging data is rising exponentially. These new datasets can lead to exciting breakthroughs for the scientists that record them. However, the genome sequencing revolution of the last two decades has demonstrated the importance of openly sharing scientific data in order to fully exploit new opportunities for research.
Since the information density in imaging data is so high, it is likely that open publicly accessible biological imaging data will be at least as valuable and powerful as genomic data, possibly more so. However, the size and complexity of these datasets pose great challenges for routine storage, public access and re-use.
The European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI), the home of biological data in Europe, have taken on this challenge and committed to expanding their “open data mission” to include biological images, by creating a public biological image archive.
Free access and reuse
The construction of the BioImage Archive will provide a secure, searchable storage system for bioimage datasets. The vision is that the BioImage Archive will hold images that are linked to scientific publications, or that are part of curated reference datasets, and that any researcher can freely access and reuse any bioimage stored in there.
As EMBL-EBI already holds genomic, structural and other biomolecular data, there is a unique opportunity to link data in this archive with other reference datasets, further enhancing the value of the public resources EMBL-EBI delivers to the global scientific community.
Working with the electron, X-ray, and light microscopy communities, EMBL-EBI has recently piloted two public image data resources — EMPIAR and IDR. These have established the technology and workflows for routine data publication and highlighted the importance of open bioimage data resources in delivering the full impact of modern imaging technologies in the life sciences.
The BioImage Archive will be opened now and will mature over the next five years, with the technical investment supported via the UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) Strategic Priorities Fund. It will underpin the continued growth of EMPIAR and IDR and allow an emergence of community resources that focus on specific domains – Cell and Tissue IDR are the first examples of this evolution.
As resources focus on specific communities, they will act as invaluable bridges for image deposition and retrieval to and from the central BioImage Archive. Essential collaborators in these developments include UKRI, the Open Microscopy Environment (OME) and Euro-BioImaging, each of which provides connections to important stakeholders in the development of the BioImage Archive and its associated ecosystem of resources.
Working with the community experts throughout the development process is paramount to ensure that the BioImage Archive serves the needs of life science researchers, data scientists, software engineers, funders and the wider public.
Developing the technical and biological metadata required for successful image data submission, as well as the best methods to store, link and re-serve image data to enable wider image reuse, will be the first, essential steps in making the BioImage Archive a reality.