DTU Biosustain receives a computational power shot of DKK 90 million

Thursday 15 Sep 16

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Jens Nielsen
Chief Scientific Officer
DTU Biosustain

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Markus Herrgard
Professor
DTU Biosustain
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A grant of DKK 90 million (EUR 12 million) from the Novo Nordisk Foundation gives DTU Biosustain an enormous ‘computational injection’. The goal is to develop quicker and smarter tools for analysis of big bio-data. 

Today, biotechnologists can generate terabytes of data within a few hours in the lab. But analysing the data can be overwhelmingly time consuming and tedious without the right computational tools.

“You need very advanced computer programs and modelling tools to sort and interpret all this data. Without these tools, the raw data is more or less useless,” says Scientific Director Jens Nielsen from The Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability, DTU Biosustain, at Technical University of Denmark. He continues:   

“With this grant, we will be able to hire more highly skilled computational personnel, who can analyse biological data and build advanced models. This puts us at the cutting-edge of model-structured big analysis in biotechnology.”

"This puts us at the cutting-edge of model-structured big analysis in biotechnology."
Jens Nielsen, Scientific Director, The Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability, DTU Biosustain

25% of activities will become computational

DTU Biosustain develops so-called cell factories: microscopic, living cells, which are designed to produce valuable chemicals, medical products, and nutrients in a sustainable way.

Today, industry often use oil, rare plants, or animals to produce a broad range of chemicals and pharmaceutical drugs. With cell factories, oil, animals, and plants are often taken out of the equation, so the production becomes greener.

Until now, DTU Biosustain has ‘rewired’ cells to produce e.g. blood hemoglobin, plastic precursors, the powerful antioxidant resveratrol, and valuable cancer drugs of high purity.

This rewiring of the cell’s metabolism requires extensive computational modelling and computer databases with genetic information.

Currently, DTU Biosustain spends about 15 per cent of its funds on data analysis and modelling.

Using this grant and other funds, the goal is to increase this ratio to approximately 25 per cent over the next five years. Furthermore, DTU Biosustain will take on the task of educating more bio-technologists in data analysis.

“This field is growing very quickly, and we need to educate a lot of technically skilled engineers, who both know cell biology, biotechnology, and computer modelling and who can develop interfaces for data analysis that non-computer experts can also use,” says Director of the Iterative Core Unit (iLoop) Markus Herrgard at DTU Biosustain.

More focus on usability

One of the tasks is to develop user-friendly interfaces. Today, big repositories for different kinds of data already exist. These are libraries with DNA sequences, gene chassis, transcription data, and protein data from different model organisms.

However, the databases don’t integrate. Therefore, a platform that can integrate these libraries—as  well as store, organize, analyze, and visualize data in a user-friendly fashion—is much needed.

“Today, biotechnologists will have to open several online databases and programs to get information about how a change in the genome will affect the organism. Also, you will often have to copy data into databases manually. So you use a lot of time trying to piece together information,” says Markus Herrgard and continues:

“We want to integrate the data-libraries into a system that will be able to tell you instantaneously, what you need to know in order to do the best cellular design, for instance. And you will not need to know any coding, because the system will have a user-friendly interface,” he says.

 

One major task will be to organize databases and develop the workflows, rules, and infrastructure necessary to maintain a public repository of models. The rules should both give unambiguous ownership over models, while at the same time permit contributions and corrections by the wider scientific community.

 

The generous grant from The Novo Nordisk Foundation will be spend on expanding existing activities as well as funding new activities within the field of computational metabolic research.

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