Where would epigenetics meet systems biology?Sunday 03 June 2012 - Wednesday 06 June 2012
Location : Weizmann Institute (Rehovot, Israel)
The EpiGeneSys course on systems biology, held from June 3rd – 6th of 2012, and organised by Amos Tanay and Eran Segal, marked an important milestone on the road to forging an enduring link between epigenetics and systems biology for the network. 36 participants from the ranks of EpiGeneSys and the FP7 initiative, BLUEPRINT, were joined by young Israeli researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, to learn about basic concepts of systems biology, work together on a "dream project" and listen to excellent talks by leaders in the field. Course attendants were particularly impressed, in the words of Ruben Gutzat, postdoctoral researcher at the Gregor-Mendel-Institute in Vienna, "by the combination of a relaxed atmosphere and great science". The first two days were exclusively given to "chalk-talk" type of lectures (although delivered on a white board), which many felt to be the highlight of the experience: "I found the chalk-talk type presentations and the interactive atmosphere very helpful. It felt like we were thinking together about the basic concepts of systems biology," said Bori Gerle, postdoc in Nicholas Luscombe's lab at University College London. Many course participants were also enthusiastic about the group activities, like the social events, which helped them to get to know each other in an informal manner as well as the scientific "dream project", which inspired the young researchers to think outside the box and, as Bori phrased it, "to discuss solutions to some of the big open questions in epigenetics without restrictions from what's currently possible". When asked for the most memorable moment of the workshop, the majority voted for Uri Alon's "Guitar Talk", which not only let people groove to a few catchy tunes, but also provided them with some impromptu advice coming from Uri's personal experience and the challenges he's faced as a scientist. A presentation of the different groups' projects and a trip to Jerusalem concluded this part of the course.
The last day was reserved for a symposium with talks from leading experts in the field. Speakers included: Naama Barkai (WIS), Manolis Kellis (MIT), Chaim Cedar (Hebrew U) and Dirk Schübeler (FMI), to name but a few. The day concluded with a poster session, which gave the participants the opportunity to present and discuss their projects with a truly impressive line-up of scientists.
So, what were the main take-home points for attendees? One course participant pointed out that stripping a system of its details can make it accessible to simple modeling, which can be a very powerful approach to understand new and counterintuitive behaviors. Or, like Federico Comoglio, PHD student at the D-BSSE of the ETH Zürich put it: "Epigenetics is a branch of biology where statistics and physics can contribute substantially and therefore effort has to be made in order to bring together people with different types of expertise working on the unique problems that the field offers." But also scientists from the theoretical disciplines such as Louella Vasquez, postdoctoral researcher at Human Genetics Group at the Sanger Institute gained new insights: "As a computational person, I need to learn and drive the biological problems and that methods and analysis will just follow."
Feedback from the event was overwhelmingly positive from participants and group leaders alike—a clear indication that EpiGeneSys is well on its way to transforming its vision into reality of conjoining epigenetics and systems biology.