A new international initiative to understand life

EMBL Australia

Australia-Japan collaborative agreement signed on Tuesday 13 March in Melbourne

Australian scientists will collaborate with a pioneering Japanese group in systems biology research. – a new field of science that bridges biology and computer science to understand how whole organisms – plants, animals, bacteria, people – work.

The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between EMBL Australia and Japan’s Systems Biology Institute (SBI) was announced this morning by EMBL Australia chairman Prof Richard Larkins and SBI Director Prof Hiroaki Kitano. EMBL Australia is Australia’s gateway to EMBL – the European Molecular Biology Laboratory. Prof Kitano is not only director of the highly regarded Japanese institute, but also President and Chief Operating Officer of the Sony Computer Science Laboratories. And until recently he was on the Scientific Advisory Committee of EMBL.

Systems biology gives us a new language to describe biological processes. It unifies our knowledge of genes, proteins, cellular biology and neurology. Instead of breaking cells, organs, genomes or whole organisms into their component parts, systems biology studies them as a whole.

High powered computing allows us to crunch vast quantities of biological data, looking for patterns and similarities. Whole organism and real-time imaging techniques are also fundamental. The methods of systems biology can even be used to study entire ecosystems.  “Systems biology is a multidisciplinary science that tackles the big questions,” said Prof Kitano. “It can’t be done by just one person or one laboratory—it needs integration of data, knowledge, and various expertise from medical and biology experts to computer science and engineering experts.”

Prof Kitano is collaborating with Dr Nicolas Plachta, one of EMBL Australia’s first two group leaders of the EMBL Australia Partner Laboratory. Dr Plachta is based at the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute (ARMI) at Monash University.

“The agreement will strengthen existing links between the Plachta Group and the SBI, and will encourage development of further collaborations between the two organisations,” said Prof Larkins.

The Plachta Group and the Systems Biology Institute are working together to apply state of the art imaging technologies and mathematical modelling methods to understand intracellular protein movement. They have developed non-invasive tools that allow them to track proteins around individual cells in an embryo under laser scanning microscopes.

“By following the proteins as they do their jobs, we hope to get a better understanding of how the molecular machinery inside the cell works to translate the genetic information into the developmental programs that shape and organise mammalian embryos,” Dr Plachta said.

Other Australian examples of a systems biology approach include:

  • Agricultural scientists using genomics and other technologies in an ambitious program that aims to investigate all pathogenic risks to Australian wheats.
  • The Australian Wine Research Institute developing a predictive model that can accurately model how changes in the yeast genome affects alcohol content, flavour and other aspects of wine.

And in Japan, researchers at SBI are developing a novel approach for designing cancer-fighting drugs which simultaneously target more than one cancer-causing gene. It’s an approach that could help us fight the most persistent, robust tumours.

Profs Larkins and Kitano also announced that Melbourne will host the 15th International Conference for Systems Biology in 2014.

Media enquiries:

Niall Byrne, Science in Public, 0417 131 977, niall@scienceinpublic.com.au


EMBL Australia

EMBL Australia was created to maximise the benefits of Australia’s associate membership to the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL).

  • Since its launch in March 2010, EMBL Australia has initiated:a Partner Laboratory Network, which will grow from the present two groups led by Edwina McGlinn and Nicolas Plachta at Monash University’s Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute to a total of 18 groups networked across four campuses;
  • a Faculty Development Program, which aims to support Australian researchers for five years at an EMBL site in Europe, followed by a further four years at an Australian institution; and
  • An International PhD program which enables PhD students to undertake their research at an EMBL laboratory in Europe while being co-supervised by an Australian university.

EMBL Australia has recently opened a mirror facility to the EMBL European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) at the University of Queensland, providing an Australian entry point to the EBI data services. In partnership with Bioplatforms Australia, EMBL Australia is also setting up the Australian Bioinformatics Network to connect bioinformaticians across the country.

They are developing training and development programs for young researchers. A flagship training school for PhD students is due to be launched in 2013.

For more information, visit their website: www.emblaustralia.org

Professor Hiroaki Kitano

Hiroaki Kitano is best known as the creator of the robotic dog AIBO and founding president of the Robotic Soccer World Cup.

But he’s also a pioneer of systems biology, using his knowledge of computing and robotics to understand and analyse biological processes. His career has straddled the two disciplines – he’s currently the Director of the Systems Biology Institute in Tokyo, as well as the Director of the Sony Computer Science Laboratories.

He’s co-developed a computer modelling framework – Systems Biology Markup Language – to store and make sense of the vast quantities biological information being generated. It can be used to create computer models of diseases and biological processes, and to share that knowledge with other researchers.

He’s a past winner of the Nature Award for Creative Mentoring in Science. His students have praised his willingness to invest in ‘absurd’ and ‘outrageous’ ideas. One said his ideas are so far ahead of their time that he seems ‘clairvoyant’.

Prof Kitano’s current research:

The unified theme of my research is “emergence and evolution of intelligence”. Diverse approaches must be taken to tackle this grand problem. As a basic researcher, I am focusing on computational aspects of the evolution of neurogenesis and morphogenesis. Research on high-level intelligence is based on the genetic supervision theory and active perception, so that phenomena such as emotion and selective attention can be incorporated. In the long run, these issues will be integrated as “Symbiotic Systems Theory”. A robust real-time translation of closed-caption and entertainment applications are expected fruits of this basic research.


Professor Hiroaki Kitano (left) Director of Sony Computer Science Laboratories and EMBL Australia chairman Prof Richard Larkins (right) shake hands after signing the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between EMBL Australia and Japan’s Systems Biology Institute (SBI).

Professor Hiroaki Kitano (left) Director of Sony Computer Science Laboratories and EMBL Australia chairman Prof Richard Larkins (right)

Professor Hiroaki Kitano (left) Director of Sony Computer Science Laboratories and EMBL Australia chairman Prof Richard Larkins (right) sign the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between EMBL Australia and Japan’s Systems Biology Institute (SBI).

Amanda Caples (left), Executive Director at Victorian Department of Business and Innovation and Professor Hiroaki Kitano (right) Director of Sony Computer Science Laboratories