For part of last week I attended (and gave the opening plenary lecture at) the 9th Annual Conference of the Metabolomics Society (#metsoc2013) in Glasgow, where I was also honoured – along with Lloyd Sumner – to be awarded this year’s Honorary Life Membership of the Society. (I am a co-author of the paper where the term ‘metabolome’ first appeared in the peer-reviewed literature.) I have not been to these meetings since I co-organised the 2007 version, and it was very nice to see how much the field has moved on, with the conference attracting over 700 delegates. It is known from metabolic control analysis (and see e.g. this paper) that while changes in transcript or protein levels or activities individually normally have only small effects on metabolic fluxes (other than those to exit), they can and do have large effects on metabolite concentrations, so the metabolome serves to amplify them. This is a principal motivation for studying the metabolome. There were a great many highlights in talks I was able to attend, far too many to mention, but to give a flavour of the breadth I might note a fascinating exposition on the use of metabolomics to understand peanut allergy by Brian McCarry, the metabolome-based discovery of a mitochondrial pyruvate carrier (James Cox), Drosophila metabolomics (Julian Dow), willow metabolomics (Jane Ward), numerous advances in mass spectrometry methods (Graham Cooks), and an excellent analysis of the bases for the highly variable response of humans to aspirin (Sandrine Ellero-Simato). Next year’s meeting, as was the first (see report) (that I also attended), will be in Tsuruoka, Japan. [...]
Since I had almost no external visits in last week’s Bank Holiday-truncated schedule – although I did have one of my regular 1:1 meetings with Sir Mark Walport of the Wellcome Trust – I shall ruminate a little on the relationships between biochemistry and management. This is partly, of course, because both involve an understanding of systems and how they adapt to external inputs, a rather nice example from this perspective (IMHO) being an analysis that I have just co-authored. As I have remarked before, biological systems have tended to select for robustness over immediate efficiency; one way that this can achieved is via a substantial elasticity of individual biochemical steps to changes in inputs. In the study cited, we looked at the rather extensive changes in gene expression and metabolism consequent upon a pulsed change in nutrient status. Some, such as changes in inosine metabolism, were rather striking and not necessarily expected, which is why it is best not to start with hypotheses for this kind of experiment. [...]
The week began with a meeting to discuss the development of ELIXIR, a pan-European infrastructure for bioinformatics. BBSRC, with support from MRC and NERC, is the lead agency for the UK part of this, whose hub will be at the EBI and for which there will be a series of other nodes. I gave a talk about the strategic importance of ELIXIR generally and how it fits into our own Strategic Plan. There was considerable enthusiasm from the many European partner countries represented, and a palpable and shared sense of purpose.
We also had an important meeting of BBSRC Council, the last before the upcoming budget/ Comprehensive Spending Review this week, where a number of significant developments were brought forward, and where I rehearsed the European recognition of the importance of the Knowledge Based BioEconomy, on which I have blogged before. [...]
Last week began with the viva voce exam of my last research student, Eva Zelena, who emerged from a 3.5h discourse based on her work on developing and exploiting methods for metabolomics with flying colours. The first use of the word ‘metabolome’ was in 1998, a year in which I was invited to join domain experts in Streptomyces biology to help develop tools for the emerging field of ’omics, as part of a BBSRC Initiative called Functional Genomics Technologies. This was one of our earliest initiatives as the world learned to adapt to and make use of the post-genomic era, and was followed, for instance, by two rounds of the Investigating Gene Function initiatives (a review of which will appear this year). [...]