Summary of the Business Case

If the second half of the twentieth century is considered to be the ‘digital age’, with the introduction of high-powered digital computers, and freely available data via the internet, then the first half of the twenty-first century may well be considered as the ‘biological age’. Our ability to sequence DNA increasingly quickly, accurately and inexpensively has opened up a new vista for biological research. This ‘omics’ revolution is best illustrated by the publication of the draft human genome sequence in 2001. The ensuing data deluge showed that this acceleration was part of a wider series of developments in the life sciences with tremendous potential in areas such as drug development, personalised medicine, and sustainable agri-systems. This was recognised by OECD who stated that biotechnology could contribute up to 2.7% of the GDP of OECD countries in 2030 (The Bioeconomy to 2030, designing a political agenda, OECD, 2009 – Download OECD report), with many leading world economies, such as Germany and the USA, identifying the bioeconomy as the next important growth area. This expansion will largely be driven by knowledge-based industries, an area ideally suited for exploitation by the strong European science base.

The challenge for the life sciences in the coming decades will be how we best utilise the deluge of data, and systems biology will be central to this endeavour. In contrast to traditional biological reductionist research, breaking down biological phenomena into constituent parts and analysing these components in isolation, systems biology integrates diverse datasets to allow us to understand biological processes across multiple temporal and spatial scales. This approach is built on the utilisation of computational models in an iterative process of experimentation and modelling, enabling researchers to simulate, explore and predict behaviour of the biological system under investigation.

Over the last decade, systems biology has flourished across Europe and worldwide with advances in high throughput ‘omics’ technologies, modern computational power and the high speed information exchange of the internet. It is now vital to spread this expertise rapidly throughout the life sciences, together with the relevant tools, to undertake even more detailed scientific investigation.

The creation of ISBE will ensure that previous and planned national and international investments will be maximised for the European Research Area to gain added value from European level coordination. It will capitalise on this momentum by providing easy access to services, tools and resources, as well as training and education in systems biology across Europe, to tackle pressing societal grand challenges in health, agriculture and bio-economy.

Realising ISBE – Meeting infrastructure needs for systems biology

ISBE’s strategy is to create a pan-European infrastructure for systems biology (ISBE) that facilitates the use of model-driven approaches to understand complex biological systems, enabling their function to be altered in a rational and predictive way.

The delivery of the ISBE strategy will be achieved at a pan-European level across interrelated domains of the services, tools and resources in five main types of co-ordinated activity:

  • modelling and data integration resources and services
  • stewardship
  • standardisation
  • model-compliant data generation
  • education and training

 

These co-ordinated activities will be interlinked to greatly improve accessibility, interoperability and re-usability of data, in accordance with the FAIR initiative.

ISBE will comprise a two layer ‘hub and spoke’ model. At the national level, the national Systems Biology Centre (nSBC) would typically be hosted by a leading university or research institute, linking to other universities and research institutes, all contributing to ISBE. For each country it is envisaged these centres would build upon the installed base of facilities and expertise in line with the national strategies of individual European member states, with provision of resources derived from most of the major previous national investments in systems biology infrastructure.

At the European level, the hub for the whole of ISBE will be the Coordinating ISBE Office (CIO) for administrative, legal and governance aspects, with one of the nSBCs coordinating operational delivery, including responsibility for pan European issues relating to standards and training.

It is envisaged that this structure will link countries with the ability to provide most, if not all, of the facilities and expertise required to realise the ISBE vision, with other countries who have smaller or less well developed research communities that may be able to provide only certain aspects of the vision. The ISBE services will have different modalities including web-based resources, consultancy and contract activities.

Underpinning these activities will be a multi-faceted education and training strategy which will support postgraduate education in systems biology through the development of core curricula, competency based short courses for users, training for nSBC staff in collaboration with other research infrastructures, and an up-to-date database of systems biology courses, workshops and conferences.

ISBE will not operate in isolation, it will integrate its services with complementary biomedical research infrastructures, projects and initiatives to maximise synergies, avoid overlaps and exchange expertise. ISBE is actively engaging with all European biomedical ESFRIs to tackle cross-cutting issues through its involvement in the CORBEL proposal (Coordinated Research Infrastructures Building Enduring Life-science Services) in response to the Horizon 2020 INFRADEV-4 call. ISBE will continue to explore avenues for harmonised access and service provision with other ESFRIs and EU initiatives in all aspects of its planned operations, including ISBE education and training strategy, and coherent industrial engagement.

ISBE will be a sustainable, long term infrastructure, with a robust and effective financial, legal and governance structure that supports efficient operations and strategic planning. Funding for nSBCs will come primarily from member states, reflecting their national excellence and priorities. This presents an opportunity for additional investment to enhance national coordination in countries with prior significant investments. Other countries may also identify new investment opportunities in those national research centres that would be involved in an nSBC.

Through ISBE, the European life sciences research community will come together to provide a range of integrated research ‘toolkits’ that allow all life scientists to implement computational modelling and systems approaches in their research. This will be accompanied by the development of software to facilitate modelling of complex systems and the development of standards and interoperability, making research more efficient. ISBE is poised to enable ready access to a state-of-the-art systems biology infrastructure that will further enhance European competitiveness and social wellbeing by creating a common source of systems biology services, archives, repositories, tools, standards, data, models and training.