My first activity after the summer involved attendance, and a presentation (about our funding for biophysics, and some of my own biophysical science activities) at a thoroughly interesting meeting on “Physics meets Biology” organised in Oxford by the Institute of Physics. The main themes of biophysics, that I sought to reflect, included molecular interactions, the development and exploitation of novel instrumentation, and mathematical and computational analyses of biological systems (and the data that they can generate). Several excellent talks and posters also demonstrated the considerable progress being made in the design and performance of DNA nanostructures. According to our present codings, some £70M per year of current grants involve a biophysics component.
One issue, highlighted by Athene Donald, is the difficulty of getting biological examples into core undergraduate physics curricula (the same almost certainly holds true of the converse, of course…). Nevertheless, a pleasing aspect was the high number of young people presenting both talks and posters, indicating the vibrancy of the field and the opportunities for this community to expand yet further to help solve quantitative biological problems.
A consequence of what amounts to the start of the new term was a wall of meetings, including a number of bilaterals with colleagues in sister Councils, our monthly meeting of all the Research Council Chief Executives, and another of the same grouping with Dr Vince Cable – who we were pleased to see had remained in his existing role at BIS, as did David Willetts, following the reshuffle.
I also had useful meetings with Mark Downs of the Society of Biology, colleagues from the Technology Strategy Board about our collective plans in Synthetic Biology, and with NERC for similar purposes in the Global Food Security space.
We also welcomed the announcement by David Willetts, at this year’s British Science Association Festival meeting in Aberdeen, of a contribution of £10M to HEIs towards the funding of Open Access publication in research journals. Such developments keep the UK at the forefront of the Open Access agenda, and will pay huge dividends in terms of the benefits – such as automated literature mining – that the free availability of publicly funded research findings can bring. I encourage the community to develop the tools necessary to exploit this availability as full Open Access rolls out worldwide.
Open access to scientific publications is part of the story; another part is open access to scientific data. This week saw a remarkable linked set of 30 publications from the ENCODE project, including a ‘lead’ paper, a ‘virtual machine’, an iPad app, and a thoughtful commentary on big data and big consortia by Ewan Birney. These imaginative approaches will help in understanding such voluminous and complex data as they have been set out to date; however, it will take quite some time for these and future data to be exploited to the full!
Finally, among papers I enjoyed reading was one on the relationship between enzyme promiscuity, cellular role and evolution, and another on the biophysics of cytoplasmic phase separation. Understanding what the cytoplasm is really like in vivo from a biophysical point of view is not a new problem, but remains an important goal.
- Birney, E. (2012) The making of ENCODE: Lessons for big-data projects. Nature 489, 49-51
- Clegg JS: Properties and metabolism of the aqueous cytoplasm and its boundaries. Amer J Physiol 1984; 246:R133-R151.
- Hyman AA, Brangwynne CP: Beyond stereospecificity: liquids and mesoscale organization of cytoplasm. Dev Cell 2011; 21:14-16.
- Nam H, Lewis NE, Lerman JA, Lee DH, Chang RL, Kim D, Palsson BØ: Network context and selection in the evolution to enzyme specificity. Science 2012; 337:1101-1104.
- The ENCODE Project Consortium (2012) An integrated encyclopedia of DNA elements in the human genome. Nature 489, 57–74.
- Welch GR, Clegg JS: Cell versus protoplasm: revisionist history. Cell Biol Int 2012; 36:643-647.