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NIGMS Director Jeremy Berg on Accelerating Change in Molecular Bio

Jeremy Berg is a biochemist who has directed the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, one of the largest institutes of the National Institutes of Health, for close to a year.

Berg, 46, came to his post in November with the experience of managing three groups simultaneously at Johns Hopkins after becoming chairman of the biophysics and biophysical chemistry department at age 32. He gave that up to conduct his research at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, manage NIGMS, and, essentially, accelerate change in how biomedical research is conducted through oversight of a $1.9 billion annual budget, which goes in part to support some 4,500 grants.

As part of his duties, Berg oversees a series of multimillion-dollar, five-year grants to create multidisciplinary centers of excellence, with the hopes of encouraging scientific practioners in mathematical disciplines to collaborate with biologists to create new technologies, methods, and processes to answer increasingly complex — and computationally intense — questions about biological systems. (See brief, page 8.)

Earlier this month, NIGMS awarded $3 million of a projected $15 million over five years to fund the Center for Quantitative Biology at Princeton University under the direction of David Botstein. Princeton’s center joins those already funded at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, Harvard University, the University of Washington, and Case Western Reserve University.

BioCommerce Week spoke with Berg last month to learn how NIGMS hopes to accelerate change in molecular biology techniques with this funding.

How do you define systems biology?

It’s a 30,000-foot view. The sequencing of the human genome gave us knowledge of a huge amount of compounds, and what they are, at some level. The challenge is to put that back into a physiological and medical context, to understand what happens to biological systems. It is clearly going to be important for the short term and for the foreseeable future. People are going to be spending time doing this.

What is the right biological unit for investigation?

There is a lot of conceptual stuff to be sorted through. But, 10 months ago at a conference on digital biology, Sydney Brenner spoke on the biological side as we were fretting about organizational structure and integrational units. He had a news flash: The right unit to use is called the cell. Typical, cute and pointed, but it did hit the nail on the head. There are a lot of people collecting data to tease it apart to get perspective. Just remember your biology: molecules interact within cells. There is a well-defined hierarchy that will be useful.

How do you see the development of technology for this effort?

It’s early-stage. There is lots of technology being developed and people are eager to push the development and collect the low-hanging fruit. Five or 10 years from now, what is being done now may be looked at as naïve and unsophisticated. But, if you knew what to do it, you’d do it. Biocomplexity is the biggest issue there is.

NIGMS is managing a large program of grants for complexity centers. What is the driving force for doing this?

We want to reach out to physics and engineering, where people have dealt with issues of complexity, and create a whole new approach to capturing and imaging the complexities we are dealing with in biology. These grants are designed to get people together who know biology, and have the tools, and connect them with people with a knowledge of computation to build databases and ask greater questions. Each one of the centers has had its own direction and each is developed for some specific task.

The oldest center is not yet two years old. Do you have any insight into how this is working?

It’s too early to judge.

Some of the NIH roadmap deals with the cultural aspects of scientific collaboration. In this, what changes?

There are lots of systems that reward for individual accomplishment, not for team participation, and we are attacking that from as many directions as possible. It’s a first step.

What kind of time period and how much money will it take to craft this vision of systems-based biological investigation?

Part of the problem with systems biology is that it is hard to define in ways that are easy to count. There are a number of programs across agencies that are targeted to systems investigations, and interoperability. This is in such an early stage, it’s not ready for production scale. There is a need to look at a lot of things, and for a lot of things to be tested. But, I don’t think there are major impediments.

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