Overall Objectives
Research Program
Application Domains
New Software and Platforms
New Results
Partnerships and Cooperations
XML PDF e-pub
PDF e-Pub

Section: Research Program

Different research axes

The goals of the team are biological and methodological, the two being intrinsically linked. Any division into axes along one or the other aspect or a combination of both is thus somewhat artificial. Our choice is based more on the biological questions as these are a main (but not unique) driver for the methodological developments. However, since another main objective is to contribute to the fields of exact enumeration algorithms and of combinatorics, we also defined an axis that is exclusively oriented towards some of the more theoretical aspects of such objective in as much as these can be abstracted from the biological motivation. This will concern improving theory and deeply exploring the links between different algorithmic approaches: combinatorial, randomised, stochastic. The first four axes thus fall in the first category, and the fifth one in the second. As concerns the first four axes, the model organisms or systems chosen will be those studied by the biologists among our permanent members or among our close collaborators. Currently these include the following cases:

Notice however that: (1) new model organisms or systems may be considered as the opportunity for new collaborations appears, indeed such collaborations will be actively searched for; and (2) we will always attempt to explore mathematical and computational models and to develop algorithmic methods that are as much as possible generic.

Axis 1: Identifying the molecular elements

Intra and inter-cellular interactions involve molecular elements whose identification is crucial to understand what governs, and also what might enable to control such interactions. For the sake of clarity, the elements may be classified in two main classes, one corresponding to the elements that allow the interactions to happen by moving around or across the cells, and another that are the genomic regions where contact is established. Examples of the first are non coding RNAs, proteins, and mobile genetic elements such as (DNA) transposons, retro-transposons, insertion sequences, etc. Examples of the second are DNA/RNA/protein binding sites and targets. Furthermore, both types (effectors and targets) are subject to variation across individuals of a population, or even within a single (diploid) individual. Identification of these variations is yet another topic that we wish to cover. Variations are understood in the broad sense and cover single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), copy-number variants (CNVs), repeats other than mobile elements, genomic rearrangements (deletions, duplications, insertions, inversions, translocations) and alternative splicings (ASs). All three classes of identification problems (effectors, targets, variations) may be put under the general umbrella of genomic functional annotation.

Axis 2: Inferring and analysing the networks of molecular elements

As increasingly more data about the interaction of molecular elements (among which those described above) becomes available, these should then be modelled in a subsequent step in the form of genetic, metabolic, protein-protein interaction and signalling networks. This raises two main classes of problems. The first is to accurately infer such networks. Reconstructing, by analogy, the metabolic network of an organism is often considered, rightly or wrongly, to be easier than inferring a gene regulatory network, also because in the latter case, identifying all the elements participating in the network is in itself a complex and far from solved issue, as we saw in Axis 1. Moreover, the difficulty varies depending on whether only the structure or also the dynamics of the network is of interest, assuming that the latter may be studied (kinetics data are often missing even with the increasingly more sophisticated and performing technologies we have nowadays). A more complete picture of the functioning of a cell would further require that ever more layers of network and molecular profile data, when available, are integrated together, which raises the problem of how to model together information that is heterogeneous at different levels. Modelling together metabolic and gene regulation for instance is already a hard problem given that the two happen at very different time-scales: fast for metabolic regulation, slow for gene regulation.

Even assuming such a network, integrated or “simple”, has been inferred for a given organism or set of organisms, the second problem is then to develop the appropriate mathematical models and methods to extract further biological information from such networks. The difficulty of this differs of course again depending on whether only the structure of the network is of interest, or also its dynamics. We are addressing various questions related to one or the other of the above aspects – inference and analysis.

Axis 3: Modelling and analysing a network of individuals, or a network of individuals' networks

As mentioned, at its extreme, life can be seen as one collection, or a collection of collections of genetically identical or distinct self-replicating cells who interact, sometimes closely and for long periods of evolutionary time, with a same or with distinct functional objectives. One striking example is human, who is composed of cells which are both native and extraneous; in fact, a surprising 90% is believed to belong to the second category, mostly bacteria, including one which lost its identity to become a “mere” human organelle, the mitochondrion. Bacteria on the other hand group into colonies of genetically identical individuals which may sometimes acquire the ability to become specialised for different tasks. Which is the “individual”, a single bacterium or a group thereof is difficult to say. To understand human or bacteria, or to understand any other organism, it appears therefore essential to better comprehend the interactions in which they are involved. Methodologically speaking, we must therefore move towards modelling and analysing not a single individual anymore but a network of individuals. Ultimately, we should move towards investigating a network of individuals' networks. Moreover, since organisms interact not only with others but also with their abiotic environment, there is a need to model full ecosystems, at a static but also at a dynamic level, that is by taking into account the fact that individuals or populations move in space. Our intention at a longer term is to address all such different levels. We started with the molecular and static one that we are treating from different perspectives for a large number of species at the genomic level (Baudet et al., Syst Biol, 64(3), 2015) and for a small number at the network level (Cottret et al., PLoS Comput Biol, 6(9), 2010). We intend in a near future to slowly move towards a populational and ecological approach that is dynamic in both time and space.

Axis 4: Going towards control

What was described in the Axes 2 and 3 above concerned modelling and analysing a molecular network, or network of networks, but not attempting to control the network at either level for bio-technological, environmental or health purposes.

In the bio-technological case, the objective can be briefly described as involving the manipulation of a species, in general a bacterium, in order for it to produce more of a given chemical compound it already synthetises (for instance, ethanol) but not in enough quantity, or to produce a metabolite it normally is not able to synthetise. The motivation for transplanting its production in a bacterium is, again, to be able to make it more effective.

As concerns control for environmental or health purposes, this could be achieved at least in some cases by manipulating the symbionts with which an organism, insect pest for instance, or humans leave. In the environmental case, this has gone under the name of “biological control” (see for instance Flint & Dreistat, “Natural Enemies Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Biological Pest Control”, University of California Press, 1998) and involves the use of “natural enemies” of a pest organism. This idea has a long history: the ancient Chinese, observing that ants were effective predators of many citrus pests, decided to increase the ants population by displacing their nests from the surrounding habitats and placing them inside their orchards to protect them. More recently, there has been growing evidence that some endosymbiotic bacteria, that is bacteria that live within the cells of their hosts, could become efficient biocontrol agents. This is in particular the case of Wolbachia, a bacterium much studied in ERABLE (Ahantarig & Kittayapong, J Appl Entomology, 135(7):479-486, 2011).

The connection between disease and the disruption of homeostatic interactions between the host and its microbiota is on the other hand now well established. Microbiota-targeted therapies involve altering the community composition by eliminating individual strains of a single species (for example, with antibiotics) or replacing the entire community with a new intact microbiota. Secondary infections linked to antibiotic use provide however a cautionary tale of the possible consequences of perturbing a microbial species network.

Besides the biotechnological aspects on which we are already working in the context of two European projects (BacHBerry, and to a lesser extent, MicroWine), our main goal in this case is to try to formalise such type of control. There are two objectives here. One is methodological and concerns attempting to provide a single formal framework for the diverse ways of controlling a network, or a network of networks. Our attention has concentrated initially on metabolism, and will at a mid to longer term include regulation. Our intention notably as concerns the incorporation of regulation is to collaborate with other Inria teams, most notably IBIS with whom we are already in discussion. The second objective is biological and concerns control for environmental and health purposes. The originality we are seeking in this case is to attempt such control not by eliminating species, which is done mainly through the use of antibiotics that may then create resistance, a phenomenon that is becoming a major clinical and public health problem, but by manipulating the species or their environment, or by changing the composition of the community by adding or displacing some other species in such a way that new equilibria may be reached which enable all the species living in a same niche to survive. The idea is not new: the areas of prebiotics (non-digestible food ingredients that stimulate the growth and/or activity of bacteria in the digestive system in beneficial ways) and probiotics (micro-organisms claimed to provide benefits when consumed) indeed cover similar concerns in relation to health. Other novel approaches propose to work at the level of bacterial communication (quorum sensing) to control for pathogenicity (Rutherford & Bassler, Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine, 2012). Small RNAs in particular are believed to play an important role in quorum sensing.

Axis 5: Cross-fertilising different computational approaches

In computer science and in optimisation, different approaches and techniques have been proposed to cope with hardness results. It is clear that none of them is dominant: there are classes of problems for which approach A is better than approach B, and vice-versa. Moreover, there is no satisfactory understanding of the conditions that favour one approach with respect to another one.

As an example, the team that gave birth to ERABLE, BAMBOO, had expertise more in the area of combinatorial algorithms for strings (sequences), trees and graphs. Many such algorithms addressed an enumeration problem: given a certain description of the object(s) searched for or definition of a function to be optimised, the method was supposed to list all the solutions. In many real life situations, notably in biology, a majority of the problems treated, of whatever kind, enumeration or else, are however hard. Although combinatorics remains crucial to better understand the structure of such problems and delimit the conditions that could render them easy or at least tractable in practice, often other types of approaches have to be attempted.

Although all approaches may be valid and valuable, in many cases one only is explored. More in general, there appears to be relatively little cross-talk and cross-fertilisation being attempted between these different approaches. Guided by problems from computational biology, the goal of this axis is to add to the growing insights on how well such problems can be solved theoretically.