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What to Expect from Science in 2017: Bioinformatics

Studies of ancient DNA have changed our view of the history of humanity. As such, advanced analysis of separate cells’ genomes will help generate breakthroughs in our understanding of early embryonic human development over the several next years. At the same time, in terms of research of bacterial communities, we still don’t know how to pose the correct questions.
Mikhail Gelfand

rofessor at the HSE Department of Technologies for Complex System Modelling, Academic Supervisor of the programme ‘Data Analysis for Biology and Medicine’, and Deputy Director at the RAS Institute for Information Transmission Problems

We can’t really talk about contemporary biology in terms of ‘discoveries’, since this is the result of team efforts on the part of many laboratories. Therefore, progress in this regard doesn’t look like a volcanic eruption, but rather like inevitable movements of sea surf. In regards to various areas of research, I believe the following to be the most interesting in my particular field.

First, this concerns study of ancient DNA. This is considerably changing our views of the history of humanity - from human evolution to the populations of Europe and America. But it’s not only that. Study of domestic animals’ and plants’ DNA is also thrilling, as they also enrich our views about the past. For example, this includes studies of ancient pathogens, which reveal the history of past epidemics. In addition, such studies are especially interesting when compared to the massive data on the DNA of living people, dogs, cattle, and plants, as this helps to unveil the prehistory of ethnic groups, breeds, varieties, etc.

The second area is analysis of the genomes and transcriptomes of separate cells. Currently improving experimental capabilities now allow us to carry out such studies on thousands of cells. Furthermore, this considerably deepens our view of early embryonic development, the growth of tumors and metastases, as well as the functioning of nervous and immune systems. We are now accumulating separate (huge) datasets and developing relatively particular conclusions (which were impossible just a few years ago). Still, over the next years, we expect breakthroughs in biological knowledge, and after that, in the evolutionary field. We at last expect to see long-expected evo-devo synthesis: evolution and development.

The third area, concerning which dozens and even hundreds of papers have already been published, but which hasn’t seen a breakthrough yet, is metagenomics (also known as bacterial communities’ analysis). It’s clear that such communities have a big impact on human health and the state of natural biocoenoses. However, most papers on metagenomics have been purely descriptive to date. I have a feeling that we still don’t know what questions should be posed in this area.

In conclusion, I’d like to mention two more specific areas studied by our team at the RAS Institute for Information Transmission Problems Bioinformatics Centre. I believe they are undervalued – the correlation between the DNA’s spatial structure and functional state (a more trendy subject), and the evolution of bacterial genomes and regulatory systems (a far less glamorous issue).

What to Expect in 2017 — a Research Forecast

On the eve of New Year’s, it is customary to take a look into the near future. We asked HSE experts in various fields to share their forecasts on which areas of research might be the most interesting and promising in 2017. They tell us about what discoveries and breakthroughs await us in 2017, as well as how this could even change our lives.

Read all forecasts

December 26, 2016