Finding cures for children's genetic diseases


New Research Unit and Group Leader at CMRI


When first considering a career mixing computer science and biology, Dr Pengyi Yang was given some early career advice: “study computer science first – that way, if you don’t enjoy biology, at least you’ll still get a job!”

Fortunately for CMRI, Pengyi did enjoy biology because now, under his leadership, CMRI has established a pivotal new research unit: Computational Systems Biology.

Computational Systems Biology uses complex biological data to develop computer models of biological systems. The work is very iterative: biology researchers will gather data to inform computational models; models will then make predictions that can be tested in the lab and this data can be used to refine the predictive models.

Establishing an entire research unit at CMRI is testament to the ever-growing need to have researchers, like Pengyi, who are skilled at using computer science and statistics to analyse biological data.

“The nature of computational systems biology is very collaborative work. We find correlations and make predictions. I joined CMRI aiming to contribute my research expertise in computational and systems biology and establish collaborations with multiple research groups – especially stem cells, cell differentiation, organoids [organ-like structures grown in a lab], and mammalian development.”

Pengyi recently co-authored work published in Nature Communications. Using complex modelling, he was able to show how a protein (NF-Y) was essential for precisely marking the correct point on the DNA molecule where genetic information should start being ‘read’. The more precise this process is, the fewer errors there will be in making proteins from genetic information. While this research is fundamental ‘pure’ research, Pengyi is astutely aware that findings from such research have enormous clinical potential.

“Each step we take on this journey is getting us closer to bridging the gaps between knowledge and then translating this knowledge into new clinical techniques.”

Collaboration runs through all aspects of Pengyi’s career: he currently holds a conjoint appointment as the head of the Computational Trans-Regulatory Biology group at the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney. He is also a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney School of Mathematics and Statistics.

To read the Nature Communications paper, follow this link: