Science Interviews


Wed, 13th Nov 2013

Prof Buzz Baum - Genes to shape

Prof Buzz Baum, UCL

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This month I’m reporting back from the Genetics Society Autumn Meeting, which took place at the Royal Society in London. Called “Genes to Shape”, the talks brought together researchers ranging from mathematicians and physicists to developmental biologists to discuss how biological shapes are created. To hear more about the idea behind the meeting - and for his summary of the proceedings - I spoke to one of the co-organisers, Professor Buzz Baum from UCL, whose own lab works on cell shape and movement. 

Buzz - I think since DNA was discovered and the genome sequence, there's really been a lot emphasis on the gene level and how genes control things. As we know, that's important because if you take identical twins, they look very similar as embryos, as young adults and as people, and old people even. So, if you have identical genes, you really do have an identical phenotype in animals. In plants obviously, they're very different, but genes have a big influence. But I think in a way, the path from gene which is information to form to shape to us, is a very complicated long journey where lots of interesting things happen.

I think what's happened in the community and what this meeting was about is that in a way, trying to understand as you cross the scale from the small bits of information that is in the – these A, T, G, and Cs, this tiny code in the middle of a cell, how that is translated into these amazing large objects, beautifully formed flowers and things which we see in the macroscopic world.

It’s very complicated and to understand those processes, you can't just do the conventional kind of science the biologists are taught. You can just take genes and remove them and then you can see what goes wrong. But to understand the process, how you get from small to big growth for example and cell shape changes, you really need to start using tools from the physical sciences which is why we have so many theoretical physicists who are using logical, simple models formulated very simply and then simulations and mathematics to try to see when you put simple elements together, what do you get out.

Kat - What I found was really interesting is, I've been to a lot of genetics meetings where, like you say, people, they look at one gene that's faulty and they find you have a smaller mouse or a bigger dog or something like that. This was going right down to the molecular level, the cellular level. What for you really struck you about some of the talks today?

Buzz - Well to me, the first talk was the brilliant choice. So, I'm very glad about Andreas [Bausch] because he’s brilliant. It was really showing if you take a thing we understand well, you take the machines which regulate cell shape – actin and myosin – two machines that we know exactly what they do. They've been studied for decades, we know exactly their molecular behaviour, their physical parameters. You put them together and you change the amount of filaments, you get behaviours that are extraordinary and Andreas doesn’t understand how they arise, these beautiful things. It shows that simple rules can generate fabulous kind of behaviours.

In a way in biology, how can you reconcile these self-organising things that you have in tornadoes that we heard about - there's one in the Philippines this week, a devastating self-organising wind system - that's a bit like what is happening in the actin filaments. The biologists have said you have a genome and two identical twins are identical. So, biology is a lot about how the genome is taming and using self-organisation.

And so to me, that's a theme that runs across this tension between genes and self-organisation. The Mendel medal-winner Stan Leibler comes from physics and he just looks at the essence of things, and looking at things like hereditary and non-hereditary factors in determining organism behaviour and population, ecological behaviour – really new ways of thinking about complexity in life science and how much of it is just direct control like computer programmes, which is often where we used to think versus self-organisation. The mixture between the two is where I think life arises, which is I think is why the meeting is very alive, in fact.

Kat - What for you was the one thing that stood out that made you go, “Wow! That's fascinating! Or, that's weird!”?

Buzz - Well, when I heard about molecular biology which I work in and single gene research, you never get a wow factor because it doesn’t mean anything. You find a gene that regulates even cancer. So, why that gene? What does it matter? But a lot of the biology here in this meeting is inspired by what is inspired by nature. Look at it and the forms are beautiful, the dynamics are almost inexplicable. I'm trying to tease apart those life processes in all these different talks and in almost every talk, that's why we’ve chosen people because they think that this is biology and I think that's what's – you know, all of it is amazing.

Life is amazing. Look at a hand or a leaf, or a seed, or anything. It’s all pretty wow! That's why I'm a scientist. In the UK, at the moment, the public are interested in science and it’s because it is wondrous. I think people don’t feel that's excluded and I think in the audience too, we don’t feel as excluded now. Physicists don't feel excluded from biology and biologists aren't excluded from using modelling. I think it’s a nice time where we can all go “wow!” and then also stop and try to understand how things work which is hard, but that's what's fun. It’s not demystifying. I think it doesn’t take the magic out of the stars to understand them. It doesn’t take the magic out of development. We don’t have to worry about demystifying nature. We will never understand it, but we can get close and I enjoy that. I think the meeting showed a lot of people we’re getting close, but also showing what is not known which is also clear in many talks.

Kat - We heard talks ranging from the shape to snap dragons to tiny molecules moving around, to the inner ear of zebra fish, all sorts of things. What would be your take home message from this meeting?

Buzz - I mean, in a way, it’s partly we’ve invited people we like to hear and people we like to be up-to-date with. I think a lot of research exemplifies what I think is good science. Not all science is good. There's a lot of bad science, I would say and that 's mainly because it’s hard. It’s hard to do well and I think it’s a bit of a lesson for me with all these talks and lessons how to do science, how to define a problem well, to setup an experimental system where it’s tractable, dig deeper in understanding more and it can take 20 years. But you've got ways to really make progress.

We should all not sit down with the problem that we’ve been told to study. We should think about what's important about what's interesting in life and what we think is a fascinating problem. If we’re going to spend our time night and day, thinking about things we should do something we think is a deep important problem, a beautiful problem and thinking about what's the best way to do it, not go to our catalogue and order what's easy, but think hard about let's find a tractable way to address a beautiful interesting problem.

Kat - That was Professor Buzz Baum from UCL. Congratulations to the winner of this year’s Genetics Society Mendel Medal, Professor Stan Leibler, whose fascinating presentation about making mathematical models of complex biological systems we heard mentioned there. In his talk, he described how he and his team are taking small model ecosystems made up of bacteria, algae and single-celled animals, tracking them as they evolve, and trying to construct mathematical models that describe it. His work is helping to shed light on the processes and rules that underpin evolution, just as the medal’s namesake, Mendel, did back in the 19th century.


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