New York University Biologist Richard Bonneau has been named one of 20 visionary scientists under the age of 40 by Discover magazine. Bonneau, 33, is an assistant professor who holds appointments at NYUs Center for Genomics and Systems Biology and the universitys Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. The story, Best Brains in Science 2008, appears in Discovers December issue.
Bonneaus work falls within a new scientific field, systems biology, which examines how genes influence each other via extremely large networks of interaction and how these networks respond to stimuli, adapting over time to new environments and cell states. The field has blossomed over the past 10 years, spurred by successful mapping of genomic systems.
Bonneau and his colleagues at the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle have created models that map the control circuit governing living organisms. This is an important milestone in systems biology because it allows researchers to model how the organism adapts over time in response to its environment. Their research has examined a little studied organism, Halobacterium, which can survive high salt, radiation, and other stresses that would be deadly to most other organisms. The work goes beyond previous scholarship and accurately models how Halobacterium functions over time and responds to changing environmental conditions. The researchers are, for the first time, able to predict how over 80 percent of the total genome (several thousand genes) responded to stimuli over time, dynamically rearranging the cells makeup to meet environmental stresses.
Bonneau notes that by understanding how biological systems function, researchers can then turn their attention to engineering the biosynthesis of biofuels and pharmaceuticals.
We are now gearing up to try this sort of analysis on several other organisms, he noted. In addition, because this study examined the dynamics of a key environmental microbe it offers a window into understanding life in extreme environments, in some cases created by human activities, such as the concentration of pollution by evaporation or high salt marine environments.
A combination of experimental and algorithmic advances, including some by Bonneau, in this area have shown that scientific knowledge can go from genome to a functional and dynamical draft-model of the whole organism in a relatively short time. Important previous studies in this area identified cell components (genome sequencing) and how cell components are connected.
Bonneau is also known for his contributions in the field of proteins structure prediction, and was among the early authors on the code that is the current state of the art in predicting and modeling protein three-dimensional shapes, Rosetta.
Bonneau has a Ph.D. (2001) in biochemistry from the University of Washington and a BA (1997) in biochemistry from Florida State University. Bonneau was a Howard Hughes Medical Institute pre-doctoral Fellow in the Biological Sciences (1998-2001) and has received grants from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy.