How does a tomato plant regulate the number of leaves and branches, genetically speaking? Or how do plants determine the time of flowering? These were some of the issues addressed by scientists from various universities and disciplines during the ‘Systems Biology’ workshop at the Lorentz Centre in Leiden. “The participants mainly learned to look beyond the borders of their own fields,” says the initiator Jaap Molenaar, Professor in Applied Mathematics at Wageningen.
‘Re-thinking’ is the current buzz word for seeing things from a different perspective rather than trying to solve a problem from one’s own scientific framework. “This was the essence of our activities in the workshop,” Professor Jaap Molenaar says. As a Professor in Applied Mathematics at Wageningen University and Chairman of the Wageningen Centre for Systems Biology, Molenaar was one of the initiators of the workshop on Systems Biology. “We gave groups of biologists, bio-information scientists, mathematicians and medical scientists a week to find a solution together for a given problem.”
The workshops at the Lorentz Centre are aimed at research assistants (AIOs), post-docs and young scientists from Dutch and international universities. Participants were only eligible for the Systems Biology workshop if they first submitted a motivational application. The selected few were then able to participate at the expense of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). Every year, the Lorentz Centre organises approximately 40 of these workshops, all of which are intended to stimulate the interaction between international scientists. The Systems Biology workshop brought together 22 participants from various Dutch universities, including Wageningen, Leiden, VU Amsterdam and Twente, as well as scientists from the US, Indonesia and India.
Real scientific problem
The workshop participants were carefully matched with regard to their fields of expertise and divided into three groups, each of which was given a real scientific problem, Molenaar explains. “I supervised the group that was studying the genetic backgrounds of branching in tomato plants. After the participants had had a chance to look at the available literature on Monday, they had until Friday morning to solve the as yet unsolved scientific problem. At the end of the week, my group managed to present a sketch of a network which described the genetic regulation of leaf and branch growth in tomato plants. There were, of course, some loose ends still, but if these young scientists had or were given the time to take the matter further I am sure their work could result in a publication.”
Learn the same language
Molenaar is convinced that this positive result in such a relatively short term was only achieved because the participants had to immerse themselves into each other’s way of speaking and thinking. “Their performance should not be underestimated. I noticed that it was quite a difficult task even for the mathematicians and information scientists among each other. One would think that they communicate in more or less the same terms, but what we saw were two very distinctive cultures with their own patterns of thought and jargon. Only by overcoming these differences was the combination of young scientists from diverse disciplines able to deliver more than a sum of the individuals.”
Systems biology is interdisciplinary
The workshops in the Lorentz Centre are financed by the government via the NOW and new ideas can be contributed by scientists every year. This workshop was an initiative by the Wageningen Centre for Systems Biology, among others, and had a strong ‘Wageningen character’ with two plant case studies.
Molenaar is hoping to facilitate another Systems Biology workshop at the Lorentz Centre next year. “And there are more possibilities. The Netherlands Consortium for Systems Biology also includes a training programme for young scientists, and with the Wageningen centre we also organise colloquia, an annual symposium and even a retreat for research assistants and post-docs in our Virtual Modelling Lab. The concept behind it all is to disseminate the idea that systems biology is, in fact, interdisciplinary, and that it is important to look and think beyond one’s own borders.”