Institute for Systems Genetics (ISG)

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NYU Langone’s Institute for Systems Genetics (ISG), founded in 2014, leverages a systems approach to exploit the recent explosion of information about human biology and medicine, creating unprecedented opportunity for breakthroughs in improving human health.

Systems biology is the study of the molecular interactions that underpin life, health, and disease. It can serve as the main foundation of biology and a bridge to the rest of sciences. The field of genetics has laid the groundwork for systems biology, as genes can be disturbed one at a time, revealing functional consequences in cells, mice, or human populations. And it’s this biological function, rather than gene sequences per se, that one needs to understand how things work and how to fix them when they break. In human genetics, this experimental approach cannot be applied, but nature gives us a huge amount of natural variation to work with instead.

Today, modern systems biology exploits a much wider set of perturbational tools, and exploits ever-improving technologies from ‘omics to imaging. A systems approach is critical to exploit the explosion of information of multiple types on human biology and medicine, and make sense of the increasing volume of information, a process sometimes likened to “learning to drink from the fire hose [of information].”

At ISG, we strive to create an environment in which integration and collaboration are valued and encouraged. This is because the creativity that results from working across disciplinary boundaries fosters the most valuable breakthroughs. This approach takes full advantage of current trends in funding large Institutes and Centers, allowing greater opportunity for external resourcing.  

Another critical component is a strong focus on development and application of cutting-edge technology. The innovative questions that result from a culture of interdisciplinary research inevitably spur a need for new tools.  We can’t even imagine what these tools are today. Could we have anticipated having thousands to millions of human genomes at our fingertips ten years ago?  No, but it is happening—we need to be ready for the next big thing or, better yet, make the next big thing happen ourselves.

For example we are on the cusp of a major transition from “reading” DNA to learning how to “write” DNA. Imagine being able to “write” a DNA prescription for severe depression or pancreatic cancer, customized to an individual patient. Forging strong ties with the Engineering School, and working with them to bring in additional biologically oriented technology developers will increase the probability that breakthroughs of this type can happen “at home.”

It goes without saying that recruitment of top talent investigators is the only way to achieve breakthrough success. Specific focus areas will include a diverse group of model organism geneticists, technology developers in ‘omics, DNA sequencing experimentalists, computational biologists, with some directly focused on human biology/disease, and individuals taking an “engineering approach” to biology.  

Finally, strength in more classical human genetic approaches such as quantitative trait analysis and statistical genetics will be critical for effective interpretation of the rich tapestry of human genome sequences available in the New York area moving forward. This would build on existing strengths in the Institutes and Centers and elsewhere at NYU in human basic and clinical biology, bioinformatics, epigenetics, neuroscience, and regenerative medicine.