Mechanisms are needed to initiate, develop and support emerging research communities that cross traditional scientific and geographic boundaries.
As science progresses, new fields of research emerge. With the current pace of scientific advances, this process happens with increasing frequency and involves an increasingly wide range of scientific disciplines. Over time, scientific societies, journals, conferences and funding mechanisms are formed to disseminate new findings, to provide forums for recommending standards and nomenclature, and to facilitate collaborations. However, establishing this research infrastructure typically requires significant time and resources. As science becomes increasingly dynamic and interdisciplinary, new and more effective ways to nucleate and support emerging communities are required.
The relatively recent emergence of two cohesive communities of scientists—focusing on carbohydrates and lipids—illustrates both successful approaches and continuing challenges in interdisciplinary community building. Though researchers in traditional disciplines have been studying carbohydrates and lipids for some time, different fields can bring widely divergent research perspectives to the same subject matter. For example, carbohydrate research in a chemistry lab may focus on understanding the reactivity of a single hydroxyl group to make a synthetically challenging carbohydrate molecule; in a microbiology lab, the research team may be investigating the intracellular signaling initiated from the interaction of a host cell with a complex bacterial glycoprotein. Similarly, a collection of lipid researchers studying PI3P could include scientists interested in chemical synthesis, kinase signaling, synaptic transmission, membrane biophysics and vesicle trafficking. Although each of these aspects of the chemistry and biology of carbohydrates and lipids can be studied independently, the potential advantages of synthesizing the knowledge and tools available from these diverse research focuses are obvious.
In practice, bringing together scientists from diverse backgrounds may not be so easy. In a commentary in this issue, Peter Seeberger outlines the challenges in bringing together carbohydrate researchers (p. 368). In particular, the diversity and complexities of these molecules, the difficulty in accessing synthetic samples, and the different languages used to describe the compounds in the chemical and biological communities have hindered communication and scientific progress. As Seeberger discusses, the most important initial steps in bringing together carbohydrate researchers included the creation of a shared set of technological resources and a shared vision for priorities in advancing the field.
For the carbohydrate and lipid communities, the creation of an organized community was enabled in part by taking advantage of a focused funding initiative—a US National Institutes of Health (NIH) Glue Grant (http://www.nigms.nih.gov/initiatives/collaborative/gluegrants/). Taking a page from the earlier proteomics and genomics efforts, these grants are meant to provide short-term funding for large-scale collaborative projects. Two of the currently funded consortia, the Consortium for Functional Glycomics (CFG) and LIPID MAPS, are multicenter, multinational projects aimed respectively at elucidating the role of carbohydrate-protein interactions and identifying every biologically relevant lipid. In practical terms, the centers offer services and resources that individual scientists can use to advance their own research at a scale that would not be possible for an individual laboratory or even a single university or institute.
Beyond financial support for research, communities need forums for sharing information and results and for discussing community standards. The publication of Essentials of Glycobiology in 1999, the first comprehensive book in the field, was an important step in uniting the carbohydrate community. The second edition of the book, reviewed by Nicola Pohl (p. 373), is freely available online through the US National Center for Biotechnology Information at the request of the authors and with agreement from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/bookshelf/br.fcgi?book=glyco2&part=foreword). Online communities are now a particularly effective way for scientists to communicate in real time without geographic barriers. To address the needs of the growing carbohydrate and lipid communities, Nature Publishing Group (NPG) partnered with the CFG in 2006 to copublish the Functional Glycomics Gateway (http://www.functionalglycomics.org), and as of May 2009 NPG is co-publishing the Lipidomics Gateway (http://www.lipidmaps.org) in partnership with LIPID MAPS. These websites combine summaries of advances, news and events in their fields, and are intended for a wide audience, with public access provided to the research data, references databases, tools and reagents from the consortia.
Although these consortia have provided significant benefit for the carbohydrate and lipid communities and provide a good model for supporting other emerging communities, a number of important challenges remain unaddressed. First, funding for infrastructure is often created on a national or regional basis. For instance, as Seeberger highlights, the carbohydrate community is served by bioinformatics databases in the United States, Europe and Japan. This creates redundancies as well as the potential for conflicting information. The recent formation of the International Society for Biocuration (http://biocurator.org/) provides an exciting opportunity to coordinate database efforts on a global scale. Second, the CFG and LIPID MAPS have been successful at drawing together disparate scientists that might not have otherwise interacted. However, these consortia do not contain all of the scientists in their respective fields, and so mechanisms are needed to further integrate the members of these communities. Finally, the NIH Glue Grants only run for five years. To maintain and expand the infrastructure and tools developed by these communities, mechanisms for continued funding will be necessary.
Scientists in the carbohydrate and lipid communities represent an important segment of the chemical biology community. In addition to NPG's broad interest in supporting these scientists through the functional glycomics and LIPID MAPS gateways, we at Nature Chemical Biology look forward to fostering communication in these and other emerging fields at the interface of the chemical and biological sciences.
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Creating communities. Nat Chem Biol 5, 365 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/nchembio0609-365