My first engagement last week involved a meeting with our Integrative and Systems Biology Strategy Panel, with some pleasantly wide ranging discussions. This week the major International Conference on Systems Biology, and the 10th in the series, ICSB 2010, is being held in the UK (in Edinburgh), where I anticipate a strong showing from BBSRC-funded researchers. (Sadly I can attend for only one day, where I am co-chairing a pair of linked sessions with Uwe Sauer on Systems Biology and Metabolism.)
Most of last week was taken up with a tour of some of the Scottish Universities. I started at the Roslin Institute, part of the University of Edinburgh, where we had a hard-hat trip around the large and impressive new building being constructed as part of the Easter Bush Research Centre.
The next visit occupied nearly a full day at the Institute of Aquaculture (IoA) at the University of Stirling, where we saw a very wide range of facilities and projects including fundamental molecular genetics and genomics, breeding, nutrition, disease mechanisms and treatment, welfare and sustainability, applied to a wide variety of fish and shellfish species. Worldwide, aquaculture continues to grow significantly, since the nutritional benefits of eating fish are well known, and the correct species farmed effectively can be excellent and productive sources of high quality protein. A number of authors from the IoA contributed to one of the Open Access papers recently published in the Phil Trans special issue on Global Food Security. It is probably fair to say that general oversight of the prospects for agriculture focuses mainly on land-based crops and livestock, whereas – as an island nation if for no other reason – I do consider that we should be giving greater thought to increasing the role of aquaculture. The scientific opportunities are certainly very great. [...]
Last week, I enjoyed reading a couple of books on what is known as complexity or complex systems, the first by Melanie Mitchell and the second by Stuart Kauffman. The concept of complexity has a very particular kind of meaning in systems science, and though definitions abound, Mitchell’s version captures the essence: a complex system is “a system in which large networks of components with no central control and simple rules of operation give rise to complex collective behaviour, sophisticated information processing, and adaptation by learning or evolution” (although I’d quibble with the necessity for large networks). [...]
Biology is the nanotechnology par excellence – 4 Gigayears of evolution have seen to that – and recent work has highlighted the ability of DNA to fold itself into unusual shapes (held together mainly by H-bonds) with interesting machine-like properties – see e.g. recent papers from the laboratories of Ned Seeman and Milan Stojanovic. DNA aptamers also have interesting and complex binding properties, and I have recently published on a first complete landscape thereof. But it is proteins, with a choice of 20 rather than just 4 building blocks, that give the evolutionary tinkerer or design engineer the greater scope for protein engineering. Nowadays this means not only the engineering of proteins – important in industrial biotechnology – but engineering with proteins, to make interesting and potentially useful structures (with or without catalytic properties) by molecular self-assembly. [...]