Category: Blog Posts

On the Value of Imitating Nature (imperfectly)

COI: our group has an interest in these matters and the post reflects this and contains references to our work. The idea of making a human being from natural or unnatural parts has been more than a curiosity for centuries. The story is told in a little known book by Philip Ball (“Unnatural: the heretic act of making people” Vintage books, London 2012) and has many a fascinating angle, though the bit I really enjoy is the development of in vitro fertilization by Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards. So much Biology behind what today is a routine clinical procedure! This […]

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A Short Tale about Brachyury

Once upon time….somebody said that Genetics is Ariadne’s thread of Biology, the only way to guide us out of the labyrinth that is a biological problem. Nowhere has this been more true than in the analysis of development, the processes underlying the emergence of an organism. In this spirit, it is the systematic application of genetic analysis to Drosophila melanogaster and Caenorhabditis elegans spearheaded a deluge of information that started modern ‘Developmental Biology’ (the study of the dynamics of pattern and form in embryos, as opposed to ‘Embryology’, the detailed description of the different stages associated with embryos). The success […]

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Engineering the Future of Developmental and Stem Cell Biology

A meeting was held recently at the Pasteur Institute on the topic “Engineering the embryo: beyond Systems Biology”. The event brought to my mind a question I pose to the final year undergraduate class: how should we approach a biological problem? like physicists or like engineers? The relationship between Physics and Biology has a long and very distinguished history, strewn with technical contributions that have often changed the direction and pace of biological research. Microscopy and X-ray crystallography would not have happened without the intervention of the physicists. To see this you don’t need to go further than the 2014 […]

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Preprints in the Biomedical Sciences: The Future is Here

A few days ago, fittingly in the context of Open Access week, we had an event to explain what are preprints and how they have the potential to change communication and career development in the biomedical sciences. You can follow the recording here: https://asapbio.org/event/preprints-biomedical-science-publication-in-the-era-of-twitter-facebook. The event counted on the participation of publishers, funders and users; a summary has been posted in The Node and I encourage you to look at it and contribute to the discussion. There is much to talk about in the wake of the event. Here I shall concentrate on a few issues in the context of […]

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The Launch of the Human Cell Atlas Project: A Catalogue of Trillions of Cells Without a Question?

A catalogue is not a map and if you want to transform a catalogue into a map, you probably need to understand what the map is for. The launch of the Human Cell Atlas Project (https://www.broadinstitute.org/research-highlights-human-cell-atlas) has caught the eyes and the ears of newspapers, the mind of some scientists and, obviously, the imagination of the leaders of the project. If you see the headlines, it might tempt you. After all, the prospect and challenge of learning the secrets of 35 trillion cells (3.5 x 10^12) is an impressive undertaking. The number reminds us of Avogadro’s number and, of course, […]

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11th Symposium on the Physics of Living Matter; a brief report

And that was PLM11, the 11th Symposium on the Physics of Living Matter in Cambridge. We started this 11 years ago to draw the attention of local physicists, chemists, engineers and biologists to an exciting and then emerging interface: physics and biology. At the time, this interface echoed the notion of Biophysics, which has a long and distinguished past and still is used in certain areas of research, but this new interface is not Biophysics; we could call it ‘Physical Biology’. Biophysics looks for Physics in biological systems, looks at cells and sometimes tissues and identifies questions and problems that […]

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It’s the Magnesium!

How times change! In an episode of the making of molecular biology, Sydney Brenner was lying on a beach in California thinking about why the experiments he had been doing were not working. He had gone to California with F. Jacob to try to isolate messenger RNA, an elusive entity at the time which genetics and theory had predicted should be there. The days were passing by and mRNA kept on escaping their clutches. In the recollection of Jacob in his autobiography (The Statue Within): “That is why, thanks to the solicitude of the biochemist Hildegaard, we found ourselves lying […]

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Science is Global

following the Science is Global campaign we have had a chance to look back at our history and have realized that the mantra of  the campaign is true and that, indeed, our science has always been international, something we have enjoyed and valued. These are the nationalities that through the bonds that link generations of students and postdocs, are the fabric of our group.

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Of codes and machines in Biology I; elements for a discussion

NB. As I was writing this post, a couple of comments came up on Twitter on whether the machine metaphor was a useful one for biological systems. The discussion did not change the view that is expressed here: a machine is a good metaphor and one that, to a large extent, remains untested. a I am no fan of science fiction but there is a novel which I have always liked –for the philosophical background more than the plot- and that has come to my mind when recently thinking about genes and cells: Carl Sagan’s ‘Contact’. The key element of the story […]

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Expensive or Insightful Biology?: Single Cell Analysis as a Symptom

Lists, catalogues and classifications have always been the business of the biological sciences. The nature cabinets of the XVII and XVIII centuries, the collections that occupied much of the XIX century and which fuelled the work of Darwin are good examples of this. Beetles, butterflies, fish, pigeons, plants occupied (and occupy) the time of individuals, often amateurs, interested in Nature. The nature of this enterprise is captured in Umberto Eco’s book “The Infinity of Lists” When we don’t know the boundaries of what we want to portray, when we don’t know how many things we are talking about (….) when […]

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