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Morgan Langille: Lured by the Biology, Captured by the Challenge

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Title: Postdoc, University of California, Davis
Education: PhD, Simon Fraser University, 2009
Recommended by: Jonathan Eisen, University of California, Davis

Though biology has always been an interest of his, it was the "challenge [of] the computer science" aspect that brought Morgan Langille to metagenomics. While an undergraduate at the University of New Brunswick in Canada, Langille opted to pursue dual computer and biological sciences degrees. The Human Genome Project was beginning to heat up at the time, and he recalls "talk about 'In the future, there's going to be a lot of need to crunch on the data.'"

Now a postdoc in Jonathan Eisen's lab at the University of California, Davis, Langille seeks to improve how metagenomics data is handled. "I really like metagenomics just because there are so many computational challenges," Langille says.

As part of the Integrating Statistical Evolutionary, and Ecological Approaches to Metagenomics, or iSEEM project, led by Eisen, Langille is sifting through proteins of unknown functions that appear in large metagenomic data sets and considering ways to predict their purposes based on similarities. For example, he says, if you "look across many different genomic samples" for the presence of a particular protein, "you [can] try to see if similar proteins have similar profiles. The idea is that if they have similar profiles, they may have similar functions."

Another aspect of his work is recounted in a PLoS One paper published in January. In it, he and Eisen describe BioTorrents, a "Web site that uses the BitTorrent peer-to-peer technology that people use to pirate their movies or music ... for scientists to share their data," Langille says. So far, BioTorrents.net has racked up around 1,000 users, he says. While he knows that researchers aren't typically motivated to share their unpublished data, Langille says that "from an initial test point, it's great. It's been a good demonstration of what we can do." Still, he's hopeful that BioTorrents will take off. "I'm hoping larger providers, like NCBI, will use it to provide their data," he says.

Looking ahead

Langille says that in the future, "biologists are going to be able to do metagenomics whenever they want." To that end, he suggest that "there's definitely a need for more high-throughput tools" for data analysis.

Publications of note

In a May 2010 Nature Reviews Molecular Biology paper, Langille and his colleagues survey the landscape of bioinformatics-based approaches for detecting genomic islands. "It's a nice review of a lot of the research I did during my PhD," he says.

And the Nobel goes to ...

Were Langille to be honored with this prestigious prize, he hopes it would be for "finding a novel domain of life that [contains] genes that are very useful for practical reasons," he says.

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