The fifth annual Conference on Genomics and Systems Biology at NYU Abu Dhabi brought together scientists working at the forefront of this rapidly progressing field and featured over 30 talks by researchers from NYU New York, NYUAD, and many other universities. The three-day event held February 17-19 was capped by a public lecture from Randy Schekman, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for his work on the way cells secrete proteins.

For a field that was "in its infancy 10 years ago," genomics and systems biology has come a long way, and many of the advances have been made possible by new technologies, said Justin Blau, program head of NYUAD Biology.

"One of the biggest changes is the advent of next generation sequencing," Blau said. "This is making it possible to sequence the genome of pretty much any species and also to generate information about gene expression profiles of single cells." For example, using a fruit fly, researchers can compare the genes expressed in visual system neurons with those in motor neurons. This should help scientists determine how neurons can have such specialized and diverse functions.

Blau gave a talk at the conference on the circadian clock of fruit flies. Like humans, fruit flies can keep track of time and anticipate the predictable cycles of day and night using a dedicated set of "clock neurons." Air travel across time zones throws off the human body clock leading to jetlag. And although the tiny fruit fly rarely takes international flights, its clock neurons are also affected by changes in time zone and day length.

Blau and his coworkers were able to isolate clock neurons from the fly brain and compare the genes that these neurons express at different times of day. In his talk he mentioned a gene at much higher levels at dusk than dawn; this particular gene is involved in changing the connections clock neurons make with other neurons, in this case downstream target neurons. This process seems to be key to flies changing the pattern of their daily activity between summer and winter.

But the goal of these studies was not to simply study how changes in day length affect the fly brain. "It also allows scientists to address fundamental questions in neurobiology — such as plasticity," or the way the brain rewires itself in response to experiences, Blau said. He hopes that "the basic mechanisms we uncover for structural plasticity can help us understand plasticity in general." His lab is also trying to understand why a hard-wired behavior like circadian rhythm displays so much plasticity.

Genomics and systems biology has also brought high resolution imaging and computational expertise to biology. "For our plasticity project, we want to know if the neurons take the same path each time they grow and retract, or whether they take a different path," Blau said. "So we plan to watch these neurons grow and retract, but we will need some computational help to figure this out."