Q&A: Biologist Katrijn Vannerum on a unique new Master’s degree


Systems biologist Katrijn Vannerum explains why the new qualification in bioinformatics at Ghent University could have positive consequences for pest control in valuable crops

Keeping both parties happy

Katrijn Vannerum (pictured) is a systems biologist at the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology (VIB). She’s one of the organisers of the new MSc in bioinformatics – the development of methods and software for understanding biological data – at Ghent University, a brand new curriculum in Flanders.

Why do we need more specialists in bioinformatics?
Huge amounts of genetic information on ribonucleic acid, proteins and internal bacteria are being produced on an almost daily basis, while whole genome sequences are being determined at an ever-increasing pace. Ten years ago, sequencing a human genome took about 10 years of work by hundreds of scientists and cost more than €2.8 billion. Today, one technician can sequence a human genome for less than €4,700, in less than one day.

The accumulation of all this data has created a need for highly trained scientists. In addition, genes and proteins are no longer studied as isolated entities, but as part of complex regulatory and biological networks.

Can’t “normal” molecular biologists take on this job?
To analyse all the data, we need a multi-angle approach. We need people with an interdisciplinary mindset. Bioinformaticians are actually generalists, rather than specialists. “Wet lab scientists” typically have a very detailed view of biology: Biological systems have randomly evolved into complex systems that cannot be captured in a few rules. But there are more exceptions than fixed rules in biology. Engineers, on the other hand, model systems, and these models depend on predefined rules.

The task of a bioinformatician is to keep both parties happy. A good formalisation of a biological question should reduce the problem to a model that is mathematically tractable but that still captures the intricacies the biologist is interested in. The new course is an interfaculty curriculum that aims to provide students with the necessary knowledge, skills and attitude to work in such an interdisciplinary context.

Can you give an example of the added value of bioinformatics in molecular biology?
One example where bioinformatics can be really useful is pest control in economically valuable crops. If we’ve deciphered the genome of a certain crop and of the corresponding pest – and we need bioinformatics to do this – we can find clues about why a crop is sensitive or resistant to that particular pest species.

Since genomes are the blueprints of life, the answer must lie in the genomes. By, for instance, comparing a crop that is sensitive to a particular pest with a crop that is not sensitive to the same pest, we can see where the crop genomes differ. This will provide important information for breeders, who can then try to breed into the sensitive crop species the genes that make the crop resistant. There are many examples of such applications, and that’s why the scientific community is sequencing all crop species, as well as their pests.

Flemish Institute for Biotechnology (VIB)

VIB is a government-funded life-science research institute that has helped Flanders become one of the leading bioscience regions in Europe. Its focus is on translating scientific insights into pharmaceutical, agricultural and industrial applications.
Open house - Each year, the institute opens its labs across Flanders to thousands of visitors in its open-house Biotech Day.
First - Flemish researchers were the first to unravel the chemical structure and functional meaning of a complete genome.
Mission - The VIB was created to push Flemish life sciences research to the top and to help scientific results foster economic growth.

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