Experiments in the field of genomics, metabolomics or other modern ‘omics’ generate huge amounts of data. “But they do not necessarily always lead to answers,” warns Ron Wehrens, business unit manager of the mathematical research group Biometris. “At Wageningen UR we combine the results of omics experiments with advanced statistics, allowing us to generate useable information from the data mass.” At the ‘From Big Data to Biological Solutions’ symposium on 18 June in Wageningen, Wehrens, experts from the business world and fellow scientists from Wageningen UR will present the latest possibilities for combining advanced technology with advanced statistics.
Which gene products does an organic sample contain? Which genes are actually switched on? Which proteins are being produced? And which metabolites? Modern ‘omics technology’ can generate an inconceivable amount of data in the blink of an eye. “Distilling answers from this data is the tricky part”, says Ron Wehrens. “Issues we’d like to know include which metabolites are responsible for a specific flavour of a tomato as determined by a taste panel. Or which genes are responsible for protecting a cultivar against drought.”
In addition to the advance of the various omics, there have also been developments in the field of statistics. “Maths is a dynamic science as well,” Wehrens explains. “Of course one plus one has always added up to two. Developments in mathematics mainly lie in being able to generate solutions from a limited number of comparisons . It’s like determining a link between, say, the yield of a crop and various input variables, such as nitrogen or temperature. You know that the link is there in some shape or form, but there is only a single calibration point. Mathematically the task seems impossible, but it becomes feasible if you can describe the proper preconditions from a biological perspective. For example: if experimental scientists can determine that one of the variables is a concentration of a specific substance, which can by definition never be negative, then the number of possibilities are further limited for the statistician. This shows how working together can lead to useable answers step by step.”
Faster, higher, stronger
The potential benefits of combining omics and statistics are huge, according to Wehrens. “As soon as breeders can link a gene to a property, they will no longer have to wait until the offspring of a cross-breed has been fully cultivated, but instead be able to analyse certain properties in the early stages of seed or seedling. In the early days of genomics, research was somewhat limited by the options for analysis in the laboratory. Advances in technology have made it very tempting to simply analyse everything. After all, it costs almost nothing and is very fast. The strength of Wageningen UR is that biologists, biochemists and mathematicians increasingly join forces, including in projects together with industry. The goal is to extract the most from data, which is what we’ll be discussing during the symposium in Wageningen on 18 June.”