Curtis Huttenhower is an Assistant Professor of Computational Biology and Bioinformatics at Harvard School of Public Health. Computational biology, defined as biological and biomedical discovery driven by computational methodology, has a number of emerging responsibilities in the context of public health. In addition to an ever-increasing need to tie molecular mechanisms to human disease, computational biology is necessary to organize tremendous amounts of genomic data for analysis by biologists, physicians, and public health professionals.
Computationally, Huttenhower's research interests are in data mining techniques for very large genomic data collections. Google and other search tools have transformed the way we access online information, which — like most biological data — is inherently unstructured, noisy, and tremendously large. While the web can now provide answers to almost any question (for better or worse), we still have no unified way to ask the millions of publicly available experimental results, "How do we cure cancer?" or, "What environmental factors influence obesity?"
Biologically, his lab investigates two aspects of functional genomics at the largest and smallest scales in human health. Both clinical data and genomic sequences are now being generated in the context of large cohort studies. While these respectively describe high-level phenotypes and low-level genetic variation, a gap remains at the functional level (transcription, metabolism, molecular interactions, etc.) in connecting cellular activity to the underlying genome and resulting population structure. Huttenhower's interests are in integrating functional genomic data collections for such populations in order to understand the systems biology driving complex diseases. Initial work has been successful in describing novel protein roles in autophagy, a cellular survival mechanism involved in cancer development, and he is currently investigating other molecular mechanisms using gastrointestinal cancer cohort data.
At the opposite extreme, some of the smallest cells in the human body are also the most numerous: the human gut, skin, and oral cavity host over ten times as many archaeal, bacterial, and fungal microorganisms as there are cells in the body itself. Normally, these microbes operate essentially as an extension of the human body, supplementing our immune system and helping to digest our food. Under pathological conditions, however, this metagenomic system can become disrupted and contribute to infection or disease. Just as with human cohorts, we are beginning to understand the genetic makeup and population structure of our microfloral communities, but we know relatively little at the functional genomic level. Huttenhower's lab is using functional data integration to describe the cellular activities of these microbiota and their interactions with human hosts.