The life sciences are thriving – and it's all thanks to 'omics'

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The Independent Online

There was a time when bio-science was the Cinderella science: meticulous, certainly, and worthwhile, but far from glamorous. All that changed in 2003, when the sequencing of the human genome was completed.

Now masses of data and the potential for radical technologies are attracting the best graduates in chemistry, physics, engineering and maths. And bio-science offers more than intellectual curiosity, explains Professor Sir David Read, Biological Secretary and Vice-President of the Royal Society. "It's the human factor," he says. "Cross-disciplinary approaches are addressing many of the major threats to humanity: disease prevalence, antibiotic-resistant micro-organisms, avian flu, the threats to the environment associated with climate change."

The biological sciences are as varied, and sometimes as confusing, as life itself, taking in such disparate disciplines as neuroscience and taxonomy, environmental science and microbiology, physiology and biochemistry. At Cambridge University alone, there are 21 life-science departments.

What is exciting many dons at the moment is omics, or systems biology, which is allowing study to shift from single genes or proteins to how they work together in biological systems.

"The omics system is producing massive amounts of data that we have trouble finding people to make sense of," says Dr David Sargan, director of graduate education in the life sciences at Cambridge.

Mathematicians, physicists, chemists and engineers are all being brought in. "Modern bio-science is incredibly interdisciplinary now," says Professor Paul Freemont, head of molecular bio-sciences at Imperial College London.

Systems biologists are building mathematical models that simulate the living cell, synthetic biologists are redesigning biological systems, chemical biologists are probing living systems at the chemical level, and physicists and engineers are bringing imaging wizardry to bear in biology, from the molecular to the cellular level.

"The biological sciences are going through a revolution," says Professor Freemont. "It's very exciting in the life sciences right now. Students from other disciplines find it fascinating: they see this wonderful opportunity to develop new strands of science."

William Kelly is one of the more than 200 postgraduate researchers in the biological sciences at Imperial. An Oxford maths graduate, he ignored the lure of City lucre to look at how proteins interact in bakers' yeast. "I've always been interested in probability and statistics, and here you're dealing with a lot of data," he says. "It's data that needs analysing in new ways. It's exciting."

In humans, more than 20,000 genes and many more proteins are interacting in thousands of different ways. This complexity can be fascinating to untangle and also very rewarding for researchers, allowing a greater understanding of multiple-gene diseases such as cancer and autoimmune conditions.

Kelly's four-year PhD allowed him a year's initial training in the bio-sciences. He now analyses data from experiments on proteins, looking for patterns from which to infer relationships between them.

"We didn't have systems this size until recently," he says. "Thousands of things interacting with thousands of other things. It's all very new." Not only is analysis of this data, on this scale, novel, but it opens up the possibility of developing new statistical techniques, potentially feeding back into mathematics.

Yet many postgraduates are still attracted to the thrill of more traditional bio-science research. Claire Bourke is doing a PhD at the University of Edinburgh in the immunoepidemiology of Schistosoma haematobium infections in humans, a parasitic worm that infects one-third of sub-Saharan Africans.

"It's a tricky bugger," she says. "It's very good at what it does and we don't really know how to get rid of it." Patients given drug treatment are often soon reinfected. It lives alongside patients' immune response, in the process causing bladder, liver and kidney damage, and possibly contributing to HIV and malarial infection. "It's interesting intellectually but at a human level as well," she says. "I want to do something useful."

It is still possible to achieve similar results to the wizardry of synthetic biology by traditional means. Elizabeth Mitchell is doing her PhD at Newcastle University, engineering proteins by routine biological modification. By modifying proteins to make them bind to gold, she hopes to design a protein that can be injected into breaks or used with prosthetic limbs to help them bind better to patients' bones.

At present, the only way of doing this is with mammalian cell cultures. Mitchell's method will be cheaper and more accessible. "You're actually going to be making a difference to people's lives," she says.