The Department of Systems Biology is pleased to announce a new partnership with Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies to offer postbaccalaureate education in systems biology. The first course, titled Systems Biology: Blueprint for a 21st Century Scientific Revolution, is now accepting registrations for the spring 2017 semester.

The new course will provide a Master’s level overview of how systems biology is helping to address today’s grand challenges in biomedical research, what it can realistically be expected to achieve, and where it promises to have the most significant impact. Combining critical readings, discussions, tutorials, presentations, projects, and other activities, the course is designed for anyone interested in understanding the implications of systems biology across the sciences — including how it is affecting such fields as precision medicine, vaccine and antibiotic development, agriculture, science policy, and regulation.

Best Poster Winners
At this year's retreat Alexander Hsieh, Rotem Rubinstein, Jinzhou Yuan, and Jiguang Wang (clockwise from top left) were named winners in the Best Poster Competition.

On September 15, 2016, members of the Columbia University Department of Systems Biology gathered in Tarrytown, New York for the Department’s annual retreat. Although the tranquil setting overlooking the Hudson River was familiar, the event’s timing was new, taking place for the first time at the beginning of the academic year to enable first-year graduate students to become acquainted with the Department as they begin their studies. With a full day of scientific talks, a poster session, and ample time for informal conversation, the retreat provided an up-to-date survey of the diverse research taking place in the Department's laboratories.

Andrew Anzalone and Sakellarios ZairisMD/PhD students Andrew Anzalone and Sakellarios Zairis combined approaches based in chemical biology, synthetic biology, and computational biology to develop a new method for protein engineering.

The ribosome is a reliable machine in the cell, precisely translating the nucleotide code carried by messenger RNAs (mRNAs) into the polypeptide chains that form proteins. But although the ribosome typically reads this code with uncanny accuracy, translation has some unusual quirks. One is a phenomenon called -1 programmed ribosomal frameshifting (-1 PRF), in which the ribosome begins reading an mRNA one nucleotide before it should. This hiccup bumps translation “out of frame,” creating a different sequence of three-nucleotide-long codons. In essence, -1 PRF thus gives a single gene the unexpected ability to code for two completely different proteins.

Recently Andrew Anzalone, an MD/PhD student in the laboratory of Virginia Cornish, set out to explore whether he could take advantage of -1 PRF to engineer cells capable of producing alternate proteins. Together with Sakellarios Zairis, another MD/PhD student in the Columbia University Department of Systems Biology, the two developed a pipeline for identifying RNA motifs capable of producing this effect, as well as a method for rationally designing -1 PRF “switches.” These switches, made up of carefully tuned strands of RNA bound to ligand-sensing aptamers, can react to the presence of a specific small molecule and reliably modulate the ratio in the production of two distinct proteins from a single mRNA. The technology, they anticipate, could offer a variety of exciting new applications for synthetic biology. A paper describing their approach and findings has been published in Nature Methods.

Staphylococcus epidermis
Interactions between human cells and the bacteria that inhabit our bodies can affect health. Here, Staphylococcus epidermis binds to nasal epithelial cells. (Image courtesy of Sheetal Trivedi and Sean Sullivan.)

Launched in 2014 by investigators in the Mailman School of Public Health, the CUMC Microbiome Working Group brings together basic, clinical, and population scientists interested in understanding how the human microbiome—the ecosystems of bacteria that inhabit and interact with our tissues and organs—affects our health. Computational biologists in the Department of Systems Biology have become increasingly involved in this interdepartmental community, contributing expertise in analytical approaches that make it possible to make sense of the large data sets that microbiome studies generate.

Cluster computer

Students participating in a new course gain experience using the Department of Systems Biology's computing cluster, a Top500 supercomputer dedicated to biological research.

As more and more biological research moves to a “big data” model, the ability to use high-performance computing platforms for analysis is rapidly becoming an essential skill set. To prepare students to work with these new tools more successfully, the Columbia University Department of Systems Biology recently partnered with the Mailman School of Public Health in launching a new graduate level class focused on providing a strong grounding in the fundamental concepts behind the technology.

Columbia University iGEM Team 2015

The Columbia University 2015 iGEM Team (l-r): Hudson Lee, Suppawat Kongthong, Jacky Cheung, Kenya Velez, Samuel Magaziner, and faculty moderator Harris Wang.

A team of undergraduate students based at Columbia University for the first time participated in this year’s International Genetically Engineered Machine Foundation (iGEM) competition. Supervised by Department of Systems Biology Assistant Professor Harris Wang, the team spent this past summer developing a project that used synthetic biology methods to engineer an edible, probiotic consortium of bacteria that could regulate hunger and digestion. In September they presented their results at the iGEM Giant Jamboree in Boston, MA, where they received a silver medal for their efforts. (For more informtion about their project, see the Columbia iGEM Team website.)

“I think it’s fantastic that this ambitious group of undergraduates worked so hard to represent Columbia University on this international stage,” says Dr. Wang. “Columbia has one of the great undergraduate colleges, and now that we have a critical mass of interested students and faculty laboratories with expertise in synthetic biology, we think iGEM offers a valuable opportunity to compete with and learn from teams at other leading institutions.”

Deep sequencing class

A new team-taught course covers both the experimental and analytical basics of next-generation sequencing. Assistant Professor Chaolin Zhang led the discussion in a recent class. Photo: Lynn Saville.

As the cost of next-generation sequencing has fallen, it has become a ubiquitous and indispensable tool for research across the biomedical sciences. DNA and RNA sequencing — along with other technologies for profiling phenomena such as de novo mutations, protein-nucleic acid interactions, chromatin accessibility, ribosome activity, and microRNA abundance — now make it possible to observe multiple layers of cellular function on a genome-wide scale.

Regardless of a biologist’s chosen area of investigation, such methods have made it possible to explore many exciting new kinds of problems. At the same time, however, it has also dramatically transformed the expertise that young scientists need to develop in order to participate in cutting-edge biological research. Bringing students up to speed with the pace of change in next-generation sequencing has posed a particular challenge for educators.

Now, a new multidisciplinary, graduate-level course organized by the Columbia University Department of Systems Biology is enabling young investigators to begin incorporating these powerful new tools into their studies and future research. Designed by assistant professors Yufeng Shen, Peter Sims, and Chaolin Zhang, the course covers both the experimental principles of next-generation sequencing and key statistical methods for analyzing the enormous datasets that such technologies produce. In this way, it gives students a strong grounding in principles that are critical for more advanced graduate courses as well as the ability to begin applying deep sequencing technologies to investigate the questions they are interested in pursuing.

As Dr. Sims explains, “Whether you are a graduate student in systems biology, biochemistry, or microbiology, the chance that you are going to be doing next-generation sequencing is pretty high. At the same time, it’s completely not taught at the undergraduate level. There is no text book nor is there any time in a typical undergraduate biology curriculum to get into this in any kind of detail. Even at top-tier universities students come into graduate school without having any experience with it, and often they’re expected to jump right into this kind of research. We decided that this was a problem we had to fix.”

Electronic media offer valuable tools for learning, but what is the best way to integrate these technologies within the traditional university setting?  Brent Stockwell, a faculty member in the Columbia University Department of Systems Biology, recently asked himself this question about blended learning, an educational approach he had begun incorporating into his undergraduate biochemistry class. As Columbia News reports, the results of this investigation have been published in the journal Cell:

Alex Lachmann
Alex Lachmann during his presentation to the RNA-Seq "boot camp."

In June 2015, the Columbia University Department of Systems Biology held a five-part lecture series focusing on advanced applications of RNA-Seq in biological research. The talks covered topics such as the use of RNA-Seq for studying heterogeneity among single cells, RNA-Seq experimental design, statistical approaches for analyzing RNA-Seq data, and the utilization of RNA-Seq for the prediction of molecular interaction networks. The speakers and organizers have compiled a list of lecture notes and study materials for those wishing to learn more. Click on the links below for more information.

Nathan Johns and Antonio Gomes

Nathan Johns and Antonio Gomes in the Wang Lab received this year's Distinguished Poster Award.

On June 5, 2015, approximately 150 faculty members, postdocs, and graduate students from the Columbia University Department of Systems Biology gathered at the Tappan Hill Mansion in Tarrytown, New York, for a day filled with illuminating presentations and conversations. The meeting has become a high point of the year for the Department, providing a relaxed environment to socialize and learn about some of the newest methods and discoveries emerging from other laboratories.

Sayantan Bose Receives Best Poster Award

Associate Professor Harmen Bussemaker (left) presents the best poster award to postdoc Sayantan Bose for his efforts to develop a high-throughput platform for performing single-cell RNA-Seq.

On May 30, 2014, the Columbia University Department of Systems Biology and its Center for Multiscale Analysis of Genomic and Cellular Networks (MAGNet) held its annual retreat at Tappan Hill Mansion in Tarrytown, NY. The event provided an overview of some recent work undertaken by Department investigators, and provided a comfortable setting for department members to socialize and exchange ideas about their current research interests.

Brent Stockwell Congratulations to Brent Stockwell, one of 10 recipients of the 2014 Lenfest Distinguished Teaching Awards. Dr. Stockwell is an Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biological Sciences, and a member of the Columbia University Department of Systems Biology.

Established through a donation by trustee Gerry Lenfest (Law '58), the Lenfest Award recognizes faculty who are not only accomplished scholars but also exhibit excellence in instruction and mentorship, as well as university citizenship and professional involvement. Each recipient of the Lenfest Award receives a prize of $25,000 for a three-year period and is recognized at the Lenfest Award dinner.