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£26M to answer big questions with new approach to biology

27 November 2007

The UK’s main public funder of life science research, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), has today announced almost £26M of new funding for systems biology research to tackle significant questions in biology. 6 new projects, involving 13 universities and institutes across the UK, will harness and develop systems biology to look at important basic biological science questions – including how plants cope with drought, temperature changes and disease, how the fungus that causes thrush alters its virulence depending on the defensive response of its human host, and how animal cell signalling tells a cell how to respond to stimulus, a function that if it goes wrong can lead to cancer, inflammation and autoimmune diseases.

The new investment includes £2.8M from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Systems biology is a revolution in the way bioscientists think and work. It brings together researchers across different disciplines, combining theory, computer modelling and experiments. Over the last three years the UK Research Councils have invested around £100M in making the UK a world leader in this area. Systems biology will make the outputs of bioscience research more useful and easier to apply in the real world, as well as advancing our understanding of biological processes.

The investment announced today aims to bring a systems biology approach to bear on significant biological questions which, when answered, could help a range of biomedical and agricultural problems.

Researchers at the University of Aberdeen and Imperial College London have been awarded £4.6M to study the stress response of a common fungal infection of humans. Candida albicans and Candida glabrata are the fungi which cause thrush. The researchers are using systems biology to model how these fungi react to multiple stimuli from the human host. Traditional research only normally investigates one stimulus in isolation. By understanding what happens when a fungus receives multiple stimuli the scientists will have a better idea of how this affects virulence. The project will also provide tools that may provide new approaches for studying other pathogens and biological systems.

Over £5M has been awarded to a research team from the Universities of Edinburgh, Liverpool, Warwick and York to develop a model of how a plant copes with temperature changes. Existing studies show that certain parts of plants, which carry signals, are either highly sensitive to temperature change or are buffered against extreme conditions. The project will model how the pathways respond to temperature and then how changes to part of the system affects the whole plant. The research could lead to the development of higher yield crops, better able to cope with harsh condition and the increased temperatures expected with climate change. Another project, which includes researchers at Warwick HRI and the Universities of Essex and Exeter, will receive £5M to study other aspects of plant signalling networks and their responses to stress and also has applications to crop breeding.

A project at the Universities of Liverpool, Manchester and Warwick has received £5M of funding to use systems biology to understand better an important signalling mechanism in the body. NFkB signalling is involved in governing the response within cells to stimulus such as stress, immune challenge and UV radiation. It is important in determining when a cell is programmed to die. When the system goes wrong it has been implicated in cancer, inflammatory problems, autoimmune diseases and septic shock. The goal of the project will be to develop a model of the system to help to complete our understanding of it.

Full details of all six projects funded are listed below.

This new investment in systems biology represents a further major step by BBSRC and EPSRC to build the UK’s world leading expertise in this area. Steve Visscher, BBSRC Interim Chief Executive, said: “Systems biology is a new way of looking at questions in the biosciences. Instead of simply measuring and describing plants, animals, cells and molecules, bioscientists can harness the power of modelling and computers to design their experiments and to predict how something will work. This exciting proposition will mean faster and safer drug development, new ways of coping with climate change, and science that can inform policy. The UK is a world leader in systems biology and the new funding announced today helps to keep our bioscience community at the forefront.”

ENDS

Notes to editors

The funding announced today is the outcome of the Systems Approach to Biological Research (SABR) Initiative, launched in autumn 2006.

The six projects are:

Dynamics and function of the NF-kappaB signalling system (£5.07M, 5 years, Liverpool, Manchester, Warwick)

Systems biology approach to analyse the NF-kappaB signalling system. NFkB signalling is involved in governing the response within cells to stimulus such as stress, the immune system and UV radiation. It is important in determining how a cell decides when to die. When the system goes wrong it has been implicated in cancer, inflammatory problems, autoimmune diseases and septic shock. The goal of the project will be to develop a model of the system to help to complete our understanding of it.

A Multiscale Approach to Genes, Growth and Geometry (£3.38M, 5 years, John Innes Centre, Norwich, University of East Anglia)

This project aims to understand the dynamics and genetic controls that underlie shapes in biology. It aims to do this by analysing and modelling leaf growth. The project will study the factors involved in leaf growth at multiple levels – subcellular, cellular, organ and plant. These will be integrated to generate a model of leaf growth and shape in a model plant.

Regulation of Biological Signalling by Temperature (ROBuST) (£5.01M, 5 years, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Warwick, York)

The ROBuST team are planning to analyse and model the way that signalling pathways for light, circadian rhythms and cold, respond to temperature changes in the plant Arabidposis. The project will model how temperature changes that affect some signalling pathways affect the whole plant. The research will help plant breeders to develop crops able to cope with damaging environmental conditions, such as with climate change, and with higher yields.

Combinatorial responses of fungal pathogens to their human hosts: an Integrative Systems Biology approach (£4.62M, 5 years, Aberdeen, Imperial College London)

Stress factors on an organism do not happen in isolation in the real world but are often studied that way in the lab. This project aims to study combinations of stress caused by their human hosts for the fungal pathogens Candida albicans and Candida glabrata. The way the fungus responds to the stimuli appears to affect its virulence, and Candida albicans is an important pathogen that causes thrush. Investigating multiple stresses in traditional biology would be very difficult so the team will use sophisticated modelling to replace most experiments, with carefully selected, specific experiments used to test hypothesise. The project will not only inform our understanding of the virulence of the particular pathogens but generate technical approaches for this sort of work in the future.

The ONDEX System for integrating Life Sciences data sources (£2.7M, 3 years, Rothamsted Research, Manchester, Newcastle)

Modern bioscience research generates massive amounts of data that are stored in diverse data collections. This project will develop a robust open-source software system for integrating life science data by extending the ONDEX data integration platform ( http://ondex.sf.net). Four demonstrator applications of data integration will be developed in collaboration with BBSRC systems biology centres which will: identify new genetic and molecular targets to improve bioenergy crops (Rothamsted); integrate different yeast metabolome models (Manchester, MCISB); support studies of telomere function relating to ageing research in yeast (Newcastle, CISBAN) and explore data on the signal transduction processes controlling circadian rhythms in Arabidopsis thaliana (Edinburgh, CSBE).

Elucidating Signalling Networks in Plant Stress Responses (£5.06M, 5 years, Warwick, Essex, Exeter)

Over £5M has been awarded to a research team from the Universities of Warwick, Exeter and Essex to develop models of how plants cope with environmental stress. Climate change will bring changing pathogen populations and more extreme environmental conditions making the maintenance of crop yields an increasing challenge. The signalling pathways used by plants in response to external stresses are often shared between different stimuli. How do plants switch between pathways and balance them when under multiple stresses? This project will research and model plant responses to three different pathogens, drought and excessive light. We will then be able to understand how plants respond to stress with important implications for breeding crop varieties that maintain their yield under changing environmental conditions.

SABR is a joint initiative of BBSRC and EPSRC. BBSRC has invested £23M and EPSRC has invested £2.8M. A wide range of industrial partners are also involved.

BBSRC and EPSRC have previously invested almost £50M in six Centres for Integrative Systems Biology in universities. BBSRC has also invested significant funds in international systems biology initiatives.

About BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £380 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk

About EPSRC

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK’s main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. The EPSRC invests around £740 million a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone’s health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC also actively promotes public awareness of science and engineering. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK. Website address for more information on EPSRC: http://www.epsrc.ac.uk

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