Dec. 2006 / Jan. 2007 | The Microsoft Research-University of Trento Centre for Computational and Systems Biology — or “CoSBi” for short — was established in February 2005, when Bill Gates signed a memorandum of understanding with state and local officials.
But Trento, with its pebbled streets, 16th century churches, and Alpine scenery, does not immediately suggest a hotbed of 21st century research. CoSBi president Corrado Priami has heard such doubts before. “You might think that this is a joke, but this is reality!” he laughs. “I was asked by Microsoft a few years ago to present some of my research on computer networks. At the same time, Ehud Shapiro from the Weizmann Institute in Israel said this could be well suited to model biological systems. A few months later I moved to Trento, and heard the local government was investing a lot of money in research. These circumstances made the agreement for the constitution of the Centre possible.”
The Centre is still in its infancy, with some 20 researchers, and is set up as a private non-profit company, with the shares split between MSR Cambridge and the University of Trento.
Priami, Luca Cardelli and Andrew Herbert are members of the Board of Directors. Among the scientific advisors are Leroy Hood (Institute of Systems Biology) and Manuel Peitsch (Novartis — see page 24).
Priami ticks off five major priorities for the Centre. “First, to enhance the understanding of biological processes through the exploitation of multidisciplinary research... to better understand experiments and understand data through models based on in silico platforms.” Other priorities include looking at “biocomputational systems in which we can get insights from biology to create new, more efficient programming languages. Third, collaboration with experimental biologists with wet labs to validate and change our thinking, the idea is to use our approach to better solve the problems.”
A fourth goal is to disseminate results to the community, freely sharing ideas and software prototypes. “And then we would also like to create new blocks of computational tools to define in silico labs,” says Priami. He sees an environment in which computer scientists collaborate with biologists in selecting problems to solve together. “This feedback, iterative process, in which computer scientists and biologists work together, can really help to understand how biology works.”
Priami highlights several exciting areas at the Centre, including theoretical biology to build models for complexity of pathways; the usage of formal language techniques to develop modeling tools; and models of pathways for complex biological systems. Priami’s most recent paper, published in Bioinformatics, deals with the design of a tool for translating systems biology markup language (SBML).
The Centre organized the 2006 “Converging Sciences” meeting, melding far-reaching discussions on computer science and research funding with a modern art competition for high school students. -- K.D.
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