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Chris Ponting and Andreas Heger
Chris Ponting and Andreas Heger

We speak to Drs Rebecca Bryant (Research Manager) and Andreas Heger, (Technical Director) from the Computational Genomics: Analysis and Training (CGAT) programme in the MRC Functional Genomics Unit.

Extracted from Issue 2, August 2013 OxfordMedSci News.

Tell us a little about the Computational Genomics: Analysis and Training (CGAT) lab

CGAT is not your standard lab. In fact, it’s unique!

CGAT’s mission is to train biologists in computational genomics, in particular in NGS (next-generation sequencing) analyses. We do this by providing in-depth training over three years for our Genomics Training Fellows. Our Fellows are trained in all aspects of computational genomics and, once proficient, they put their skills to practical use by collaborating on projects in the field. CGAT collaborates with scientists across the UK on a variety of projects in a number of areas such as immunology, lincRNA, prostate cancer, osteoarthritis and epigenetics. On leaving CGAT, Fellows will return to their original disciplines and take on a leading research role by being able to combine both wet-lab and dry-lab methods.

Genomics is a very fast-moving area, with novel data sets and analyses appearing weekly, and interpretation methods developing and evolving continuously. The challenge for us is to gain biological insight from these very large and complex data sets.

An important distinction to make is that CGAT is not a bioinformatics core group or service, but works as a scientific collaborator on these projects – aiming to provide equal input to the design, interpretation and publication of a study under a joint-first authorship model.

CGAT is headed up by a Director (Prof Chris Ponting) and a Technical Director (Dr Andreas Heger), who are supported by three other senior staff—a Lead Scientist, a Research Manager and a Bioinformatics Systems Administrator. In addition, there are eight post-doctoral Genomics Training Fellows—the people who we train in NGS analyses. These are biologists from a variety of disciplines—human genetics, immunology, cell biology and developmental biology.

 Why is the work of CGAT important?

The CGAT programme is very important because it addresses the UK’s acute shortage of skills and capacity in the interpretation of high-throughput genomics. By providing biologists with deep training in NGS analyses, CGAT is, today, training the trainers of tomorrow.

What’s a typical day like in the lab?

We will have a number of different things going on in CGAT during any given day. The Genomics Training Fellows will always be working on their projects, but this is interspersed with a variety of other activities—weekly and monthly training meetings; group meetings (where we catch up on one another’s research); a weekly journal club; and training activities such as Open University courses and MOOCs (open online courses).

How has being at Oxford helped CGAT?

We benefit from being hosted by the MRC Functional Genomics Unit in Oxford in a number of ways - we share joint divisional meetings with other groups in the Unit, and we benefit from the Unit’s strength in genome annotation and comparative genomics. However, our aim is to collaborate with scientists across the UK (not just those in Oxford) and we are currently working with scientists from a number of institutions up and down the country.

How do you see your field developing in the next ten years? What are the obstacles (technical or otherwise) to getting there?

Genomics is highly versatile and informs many other fields such as immunology, genetics and ecology. With ever-increasing sequencing capacity, adoption of NGS methods, and a continually-growing body of data, the interpretation skills shortage is not going to disappear. Instead, it will become even more acute. In addition, storage of the growing body of data is increasingly becoming a problem.