Learning to read man’s biological text

Text: Sven Titz

Burkhard Rost has had a decisive influence on the new discipline of computational biology. His computer programmes help us to understand man’s biological blueprint more precisely. Now he is to establish a group of prominent researchers at the Technische Universität München.

Proteins are one of the keys to modern medicine. “Today, there is not a single new medicine developed without analysing proteins,” says Burkhard Rost. In principle all diseases have something to do with proteins. As man has up to 25,000 proteins encoded in his genome the need to analyse them is correspondingly great. This, however, is not conducted by armies of laboratory workers – today many biological substances are examined by computer. In the past few years computational biology has emerged as a dynamic, specialised field of its own. Rost is one of its leading specialists and has played a considerable role in shaping it.

The German researcher has spent the past ten years working at Columbia University in New York. Most recently he and his working group conducted research on how proteins change, whether and how they integrate, and what function they perform in the body. “We do not know what half of human proteins are there for,” he says. To make this meticulous analytical task easier Rost and his team developed special software. The algorithms developed for this purpose are adaptive – this accelerates the analysis. Rost’s computer programmes are also of assistance to many other academics, among other things in deciphering the genome. But even with the help of computers, mastering the flood of data remains a mighty challenge. “The quantity of biological data grows much faster than the speed of the computer,” says the 47-year-old.

Focusing on the genome

Rost will now continue his research as Humboldt Professor at the Institute of Computational Biology at the Technische Universität (TU) München. His research will consequently focus on new issues. In the future he will be more concerned with the genome. This is also due to Professors Hans-Werner Mewes, Dmitrij Frishman and Martin Hrabé de Angelis, who are already working in the field of genome-oriented computational biology at the Technische Universität and the Helmholtz Center. Furthermore, with the Munich-based Professors Stefan Kramer and Ernst Mayr, Rost is also in an excellent environment for pure computer science. And finally a number of members of the New York working group are following their boss to Bavaria.

Unusually broad education

Rost’s move to Munich means a lot to TU President Wolfgang Herrmann, who worked hard to achieve this end. “We are now unrivaled in the European computational biology scene,” he affirms. Another contributing factor in Rost’s decision was the fact that his wife has also found an excellent position in Munich. The cell biologist Karima Djabali is a specialist in progeria, a rare disease which manifests itself in premature aging. Djabali will head her own working group at the TU’s Clinic for Dermatology and Allergology. In this way both prominent researchers will be able to continue their careers at the highest level.

The way to the top in computational biology was by no means a given for Rost, who was born in Lower Saxony. He initially studied neither biology nor computer science, but in addition to physics, in which he majored, he studied history, philosophy and psychology. Not until he had received his doctorate in theoretical physics from Heidelberg University did he end up, indirectly, in the realm of the life sciences. As a natural scientist with an unusually broad education he was well equipped to take the leap into computational biology.

Applications in cancer therapy

The applications of this relatively new field of research lie first and foremost in medicine – for example, in developing formulae for treating cancer and inhibiting the aging process. Rost also expects medical therapies to be able to be more individually tailored thanks to knowledge from the fi eld of computational biology – the catchword being “gene profiling”. Attention will be paid to examining how the genes of an individual person differ from the norm and what this means for the person’s health.

Computational biology is also of potential use in completely different fields, such as waste management. Rost hopes that one day plastic rubbish can be decomposed with the aid of proteins. Computational biology helps find such proteins. Rost’s personal scientific dream, however, is a completely different one: He hopes, one day, to simulate a real biological cell with the computer. But this is still a way off.