xperimental capability to probe the genetic composition of organisms and communities, and the expression of their functions through the proteins and metabolites they produce, has developed exponentially. The cost of sequencing technologies has fallen 10,000-fold over the past decade, and it is now possible to sequence a human in a week, compared to the first which took over a decade.
Similarly there have been major enhancements in proteomics and metabolomics delivered by improved separation technologies and mass spectrometer design. This explosion in capability has been driven by the bioscience and biomedical communities, but it creates unprecedented opportunities and changes fundamentally the way in which omics data may be obtained from, and related to, the environment.
Mathematics & Informatics for Environmental Omic Data Synthesis is a new five-year NERC research programme. The programme will develop the fundamental knowledge needed to integrate large volumes of genomic, transcriptomic, proteomic and metabolomic data into wider environmental analyses to address new research questions.
A number of broad technological challenges now hinder the full potential of omics technologies in environmental science. For example:
- How to make linkages between datasets and mesh together different types of omic information, as well as measurements on the whole organism and/or community level, given that in each case data is generated using different approaches.
- How to integrate and draw meaningful connections between these omics data on species and communities with environmental conditions including the physical and chemical states of soils, oceans, freshwater and atmosphere.
- How to manage, analyse and model such large-scale, complex datasets to address specific environmental questions posed. This latter challenge will require improved approaches for comparative, statistical, spatial and/or temporal analyses as well as novel workflow methodologies and solutions for data storage and curation.
A number of high-level strategic objectives have been identified for the programme that will help to meet these challenges. These are:
- To address new research questions, including areas of environmental science where the full potential for omics has not yet been harnessed.
- To promote development of omic informatics as a professional niche within environmental research via discipline-hopping to/from mathematical and computational sciences and through wider community engagement and knowledge transfer from other research communities including biomedical, biological and physical sciences.
- To realise the opportunities created by omics technologies and to ensure that their full potential is brought to bear on current and future science challenges, through strategic appointments of advanced research positions. These should take account of existing investments by NERC and, where appropriate, operate in partnership with others.
- To provide underpinning knowledge in support of multiple science areas that cut across NERC’s strategic science themes: biodiversity; climate systems; Earth system science; environment, pollution & human health; natural hazards; sustainable use of natural resources and technologies.