Monthly Archives: March 2009

The IET BioSysBio Conference 2009

So this year, after eschewing the notion of going to ISMB we had been looking for a good, UK based conference with enough of an informatics slant to keep us interested, but with a bit more ‘real science’ than the continual stream of talks on algorithmic refinement that ISMB has become.

BioSysBio had been recommended, and not least because we had a Newcastle student member on the organising committee.

BioSysBio is a relatively new conference run by the Institute of Engineering and Technology.  I admit I had been largely ignorant of the IET, probably because I’m not an engineer of any sort, and it’s a professional body for the engineering community.  BioSysBio, being a conference largely focused on systems and synthetic biology actually falls quite well under the engineering remit – not just for the engineering approaches that are applied to synthetic biology, but also because sometimes, just sometimes this kind of work needs giant, room-filling robots.

The meeting this year was held in Cambridge in the UK, one of our most venerable university towns, giving the event a feeling of academic history despite being about possibly the most cutting edge of biological sciences.  Over three days a group of probably 250 people gathered in the Music Department to discuss, listen, type, debate and network.  A word to other conference organisers, holding the conference in the Music Department is a great idea when you have a conference venue designed for performance – the acoustics were great for talks.  The lack of power supplies however belied the number of concert goers that normally need to plug in a laptop and work whilst they listen.  A reminder to us all that it’s all very well packing our power adaptors when we go to a conference, but a four-way block/gang plug would make you a popular person indeed in situations like this.

I don’t want to run over all of the sessions, you can find the programme for the three days here.  I do however just want to rave about how good a conference this is, and share a few highlights.

At the moment BioSysBio is a great size, and is run as a single track conference with unconference style breakouts given their own slot.  A two hour slot on the second afternoon was given over to a number of simultaneously run workshops (I plugged for the ONDEX tutorial, because I work with some people who are on the ONDEX project – but still had no idea how to use the software).

Interestingly there was a really good balance between the systems biology and the synthetic biology sides of the track.  I was more impressed by the lack of laptops being sported during the talks, it meant that actual, real biologists were present mixing it up with the informatics and mathematics geeks.  This also showed through in the poster sessions.  It’s a refreshing change for a bioinformatician to see the science that has resulted from informatics based approaches, rather than having the implementation of the approaches being the primary concern.

My talks highlights came from a number of people and areas.  I found Julian Huppert‘s talk on “Four-stranded DNA: How G-Quadruplexes control transcription and translation” fascinating.  Here was a whole area of transcriptional control I had never even come across, mediated by DNA structures I had never heard of.  That’s one of those nice eye-opening moments at a conference, when the complexity of the systems you study is just laid bare in front of you by something new and exciting.  On the second day we had a talk entitled “Effect of pauses on transcriptional noise” from Andre Riberio, following on from a previous talk on RNAP the previous day by Marko Djordjevic.  The idea of patterns in transcriptional noise, caused by kinetic and spatial restraints really caught my imagination.  I really enjoyed Catherine Lloyds talk on CellML – we’re interested in both SBML and CellML at Newcastle, and it’s always nice to see speakers from both projects on the same billing.  The panel discussion on security and synthetic biology (and touching on DIYbio as well) was extremely enlightening and not just because of the fantastic talk by Drew Endy who I had the pleasure of seeing speak twice at the meeting.  On the final day there was much to chose from from Christina Smolke talking about building circuits with bits of RNA to Piers Millet from the UN talking about why we should care about securing synthetic biology.

This brings me nicely onto online coverage of the conference.  If you want to read blog posts about any of the talks, there’s just one place to go and that is to Allyson Listers blog at lurena.vox.com.  Ally, who we shall now refer to as the ‘Robot Blogger’, managed to have coverage of each talk online within minutes of them finishing, whilst apparently being able to type up notes from the talk immediately following this.  When Allyson spoke about her work on SAINT, Simon Cockell of FuzzierLogic picked up the blogging slack.

The conference organisers were fully Web 2.0 enabled.  We had a pre-existing room on FriendFeed that got heavily trailed on the first day, as well as a small contingent of Twitter enabled users contributing comments and commentary during the talks.  These were all aggregated with the hashtag #biosybio.  I think everyone agreed that whilst this is never the best way to present information from a conference (doing this on Friendfeed with an agreement between participants in a threaded discussion probably the best) I know that those of us who were twittering away were at least being thanked for it from others who could not attend.  That certainly kept me interested in how my wifi connection was doing throughout the day.  We also had the strange effect of some of our colleagues and former colleagues attending “The Influence and Impact of Web 2.0 on e-Research Infrastructure, Applications and Users” at NESC who were all using the hashtag #research3 and we even had some microblogging cross talk going with delegates there.  That was a new one for me certainly.

Despite not everyone on my Twitter subscription lists being a scientist, let alone ones interested in synthetic or systems biology, and despite posting hundreds of very geeky tweets, not a single person unsubscribed from my posting frenzy.  Either no-one is paying attention or people were happy to filter the noise for a couple of days, which I thought was great.

To sum up, it’s a great conference.  It will be great to go to it again next year in Oxford too.  I can’t remember the last time I attended every conference talk, even the 8.30am ones.  I can’t remember the last time I went to a conference and wasn’t tempted to have a post lunch snooze in the lecture theatre afterwards.  I can’t remember coming away from a conference so fired up and so keen to get back to work and start thinking harder about this years iGEM competition.  Actually the last conference I felt anything like this much fervour and excitement about was the excellent (but never repeated) O’Reilly Bioinformatics Technology Conference in Tucson in 2002.

Next year, if you’re in the field, or even vaguely interested in the field, beat a path to this conference in Oxford.  Beg, borrow or steal the cash.   I will see you there.