Why computer modelling is central to modern biology

The first computer ever created was built to solve a problem that no human mind ever could. When Alan Turing built the machine that would break the enigma code, he was implicitly acknowledging that even with his mastery of mathematics he could not deal with the vast number of parameters involved in solving a puzzle as complex as enigma.

Throughout my studies I have come to realise that, much like with enigma, no human mind will ever be able to fully comprehend how life arises from the billions of chemical interactions occurring daily within each cells. To solve this puzzle and make accurate predictions of what happens in a biological system, we need to once again turn to machines to succeed where humans cannot. This is why I think that the creation of reliable models is crucial for understanding and manipulating organisms.

The study of biology is a field ripe for automation. A lot of the research consists of mindlessly testing proteins and genes to figure out how they interact with each other in a system. For example my final year dissertation project consisted of testing if overexpressing different microRNAs (a type of small regulatory RNAs) in a specific Drosophila tissue affected the expression of the gene Ubx. I was awarded a first for this work. This project was part of a wider research effort to test thousands of microRNA interactions.

By working out the parameters which govern those interactions we could create an accurate computer model to test out a variety of different scenarios without the need for time consuming in vivo experiments. Even if those models are inaccurate, working out where they go wrong could yield valuable insight into the how complexity arises from the seemingly chaotic chemical interactions in a cell.