The science fiction series Star Trek has famously popularized the idea of holodecks, fully immersive virtual reality environments. While we are far from the fictional possibilities depicted in the series, virtual reality technologies are already here. The potential of VR for big data analysis in the life sciences has barely been tapped. New high throughput data collection technologies have created a vast amount of quantitative information about individual components and molecules of a cell. However, biomolecules do not act alone, but are part of complex interaction networks. The fundamental features of biological networks such as protein-protein interactions, cellular signaling or gene regulation can be explored with network theory and mathematical tools. Based on this approach and with technologies like virtual reality, Jörg Menche’s multidisciplinary team aims to understand how molecular networks work and how they are perturbed in disease.
You have recently published in Nature Communications about VRNetzer, a tool your lab has developed. Can you explain what it does?
VRNetzer is a software that allows you to explore large molecular networks in a Virtual Reality environment. When you put on a VR headset, you are in the middle of the network of all known protein interactions that occur in the human body. You can not only visualize this network, but also analyze it using tools from network science. For example, you can identify clusters of proteins that have a particular function or are involved in a particular disease.
What does the VR technology allow us to do that we can’t do with conventional technology?
There is just no way you can visually and interactively explore these networks without virtual reality technology. In this environment we have 300,000 lines which represent protein interactions and 20,000 points that represent the proteins. If you crammed all of this on a computer screen or on a piece of paper all you see is just a giant, messy hairball. So, without the immersive possibilities of blowing these networks up to the size of a cathedral there is just no way to visually interpret such large networks. Our VR platform is the first technology that allows you to do this.
You started your lab here in 2020. Why did you decide to join the Max Perutz Labs?
The position is shared between the Max Perutz Labs and the Faculty of Mathematics at the University of Vienna. These two institutions represent ideally what we want to do. Here at the Vienna BioCenter and the Max Perutz Labs, we are surrounded by very basic biology, by a deep knowledge and interest in fundamental questions of biology. At the same time, at the mathematics department I have access to very bright and fundamentally interested people, who look at phenomena in a different and more abstract way. For our group, which is at the intersection of both worlds, it is just the perfect place to be.
Your field has been advanced tremendously by new technologies including next generation sequencing, bioinformatics, virtual reality, etc. What kind of technologies do you think could change biology and your work in the future?
My group is really quite excited about the virtual reality technology because we are convinced that in a few years from now this will be an everyday commodity just like mobile phones are today. At the same time, we are equally convinced that it's not only technology that will advance our understanding of this enormous complexity but that also theory will actually play an important role to really dissect what are the connectivity patterns that are important for biological functions and for disease.
Talking about the future, what do you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?
What I would like to be part of is this journey of an exciting new technology that becomes part of our daily lives. I have witnessed it in my lifetime with the internet and mobile phones. And this time with virtual reality technology, I would really like to be part of the journey and to contribute to it. I would like to open up new avenues of what we can do with this technology in terms of data science and particularly in biology. I would also love to much better understand how different factors contribute to health and disease. And what I mean by that is different internal factors like your genetic make-up or external factors like environmental factors, or the food that you eat, or the drugs that you take. So, the interactions between all these different perturbations of a molecular network and their combined outcome, is what I would really love to contribute to and to better understand in the next ten years or so.
Apart from science what other interests do you pursue?
I like music a lot. I'm generally intrigued by art and design. That said, I am very busy with science because my profession is an incredibly broad field. It allows me to think about fundamental laws in biology. It allows me to think about the process of scientific discovery and creativity. It allows me to think about how can I be a better boss, what does it mean to do interdisciplinary work? I don't feel it's a limitation. I'm glad that I can focus on my research work these days.