In biology, larger and larger amounts of data accumulate ever more rapidly. It is difficult for people to recognize patterns in this flood of data. “But machine learning methods offer promising approaches to data analysis,” says Dr. Jakob Metzger. As a new junior group leader, he is setting up the Quantitative Stem Cell Biology Lab at the Berlin Institute for Medical Systems Biology (BIMSB), which is part of the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC).
Interview with Jakob Metzger
After completing his doctorate in theoretical physics, he devoted himself to developmental biology as a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Studies in Physics and Biology at Rockefeller University in New York. “It’s an exciting time to be working as a physicist in biology,” says Metzger. He wants to combine the two disciplines and apply quantitative methods inspired by physics in order to answer biological questions. For example, to better understand the mechanisms of developmental disorders such as autism and neurodegenerative illnesses, Metzger is programming algorithms that support his data analysis.
Replicating organs in a petri dish
The spectrum of autistic disorders is wide. Some are caused by mutations in the genetic makeup, but many genetic causes or other risk factors are not yet known. To be able to observe how a brain develops in an embryo, Metzger plans to grow organoids – miniature organs created from embryonic stem cells that reproduce a tissue three-dimensionally – in a petri dish. In a brain organoid there are as many cell types as possible and, on a small scale, they are sometimes arranged in the same way as in the brain. Scientists can use such models to simulate how certain factors influence embryonic development – for example, the ratio of neurons to each other or how the number of individual cell types changes when a mutation exists or environmental factors alter embryonic development.
Jakob Metzger brings a wealth of experience in disease modeling. As co-lead author in 2019, he published the paper “Self-organizing neuruloids model developmental aspects of Huntington’s disease in the ectodermal compartment” in Nature Biotechnology. In this paper he describes how neural organoids can be used to model Huntington’s disease.
Overcoming barriers between disciplines
With this knowledge, Metzger not only aims to overcome barriers between developmental biology, disease modeling and computer-aided analysis in his own research; he relies on an interdisciplinary approach and plans to work closely with other MDC scientists. He has already exchanged ideas with Dr. Mina Gouti about possible collaboration on developmental biology issues. Her research group investigates the development of the spinal cord and, among other things, breeds neuromuscular organoids from stem cells. In addition, he is pursuing collaborations with laboratories at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin.
For Jakob Metzger, his new role at the MDC represents a fantastic challenge. “I am very happy to be able to take responsibility for my own research, and also for the many collaborative opportunities I have at the MDC and beyond,” he says. In addition, the approach to life – at least during the crisis – is very different from that in New York. “I am always amazed at how quiet it is in Berlin Mitte. It’s almost like the countryside.”
Text: Jana Ehrhardt-Joswig