The Big Data of life

For centuries we have attempted to answer some of the most fundamental questions of biology and tried to understand how life works at the most basic level. It wasn’t that long ago that we first discovered the molecular actors of life -nucleic acids, proteins, lipids and carbohydrates- and it wasn’t until 1958 that we understood how the genetic information flows under the central dogma of molecular biology: the genetic instructions encoded in our DNA -genes- are first transcribed into intermediate messengers -RNA transcripts- to finally be translated into proteins. At the beginning we were only able to study these macromolecules one by one, but this has radically changed thanks to the so called OMIC technologies: genomics, transcriptomics and proteomics, among others.

“OMICs allow us to see the global picture, like a snapshot of a cell at a given time.”

OMICs allow us to see the global picture, like a snapshot of a cell at a given time.”, comments Uwe Völker, proteomics expert from the University of Greifswald. “This technological revolution started with genomics in 1995 with the determination of the first complete sequence of the genome of a self-replicating free-living organism. This marked a turning point in life science research and in our way of understanding genes and genomes” highlights Völker. Its counterparts for the analysis of transcripts and proteins, transcriptomics and proteomics respectively, followed soon changing the way we understand life: “Genomics provides a blue print, a guide of the instructions on how the things have to be built. Transcriptomics and proteomics, give us an idea about the resources and workforce available to do so, as proteins are the players of life, they are both the enzymes and the structural components of the cells.” explains Völker.

While it has been shown that our genes do not change much over time, we know that environmental changes like temperature shifts, exercise or food availability have a marked impact on the levels of transcripts, proteins and metabolites, which has led researcher like Völker to study these dynamic processes. Again here, OMICs come in handy: “Thanks to proteomics, for example, we can analyse the production, the amount, the stability and the degradation of proteins at a given time which helps us understanding biological processes and ultimately the functioning of living cells” highlights Völker.

We need to find better ways to integrate the different layers of information [coming from different omics analysis] about the genes, transcripts, proteins and metabolites and find a model to really understand how a cell functions”.

But there is a little downside to this rapid scientific progress. “We are now in the stage where we can produce massive amounts of data and the bottleneck is more and more moving from data generation to interpretation and to making sense of these big data” Völker clarifies. To overcome this limitation, research groups like Völker’s work in close collaboration with experts in bioinformatics, modelling and biomathematics that allow them to find all the answers to their questions in the big pool of information. “To gain perspective about the biological meaning of these data, the results are collected and shared in big databases to make the information available to all the people working in a specific field”. One example of this kind of databases is Subtiwiki the reference platform for Bacillus subtilis coordinated by his colleague and Rafts4Biotech partner Jörg Stülke, that contains genomic, transcriptomic, proteomic and biochemical information about this microbe.

The next big challenge? “We need to find better ways to integrate the different layers of information [coming from different omics analysis] about the genes, transcripts, proteins and metabolites and find a model to really understand how a cell functions”. Thus, the day when we successfully put everything together and finally understand how all these molecules of life are orchestrated, will surely mark a new milestone in the history of Biology

By |2018-05-10T10:33:25+00:00May 10th, 2018|R4B Stories|0 Comments

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