What I cannot break, I do not understand

Physicist Richard Feynman once said: “What I cannot create, I do not understand”. A complex system is not understood solely by passive contemplation, it needs active manipulation by the researcher. In biology this fact is long known and some of the hottest areas of modern biology focus on engineering approaches to design and construct new biological functions. However, most of what we know today about gene function wasn’t found by creating a system, it was found by breaking it: “What I cannot break, I do not understand” is the credo of functional genomics.

How to understand the cell by breaking it

This is why in September 2011 the FFG workshop ‘From phenotypes to pathways’ in Cambridge, UK, focussed on novel experimental and computational strategies for gene perturbation analysis in dissecting cellular regulatory networks and disease mechanisms.

How to link genotypes and phenotypes is a long-standing question in modern biology and modern high-throughput approaches are a key technology at the forefront of genetic research. They enable the analysis of a biological response to thousands of experimental perturbations and require a tight collaboration between experimental and computational scientists.

To put this systematically in practice, however, poses new challenges for experimental and theoretical approaches. The objective of the workshop was to provide a platform for such exchanges and to initiate interdisciplinary collaborations.

The right mix

Thirty-one participants from 14 countries presented their work in a wide variety of model systems using different perturbation strategies. The format of the meeting was focussed on discussions. Together with the 50/50 mix of computational and experimental scientists this resulted in very active discussions and close interactions between participants.

The main topics were the generation and interpretation of synthetic genetic interaction networks, the analysis of natural somatic and experimental perturbations in cancer, as well as the set-up of large-scale and high-content perturbation screens. A common theme in all discussions was the need for integrative approaches leveraging complementary data types to identify the signalling networks underlying the observed phenotypes.

The meeting was extremely well received and many participants were interested in a follow-up workshop, which we plan to hold in Fall 2012.

This is my text for the FFG newsletter. It’s really a pity the programme ends this year.

Update: the newsletter is now available in PDF.


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