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The Gurdon Institute


2020 Howard

Professor Martin Howard D Phil, Associate Group Leader; Group Leader and Head of Department, Computational and Systems Biology, John Innes Centre

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Building simple predictive mathematical models of complex biological processes 

How are cellular memory states switched and maintained? Our group combines simple, predictive mathematical modelling with long-lasting experimental collaborations, to dissect biological mechanisms too complex to unravel by experiments alone. In many cases we are able to rationalise complex biological dynamics into simple underlying mechanisms, with few components and interactions.

Our approach is highly interdisciplinary and relies heavily on the techniques of statistical physics and applied mathematics, as well as on close collaboration with experimental groups. This truly interdisciplinary approach allows us to get to the heart of biological mechanisms more speedily. 

At present the main focus of the group is epigenetic dynamics, probing how epigenetic memory states are set up and then stably maintained. In this context, we work with histone modification memory systems, as well as on DNA methylation, collaborating with experimentalists in systems ranging from plants to mammalian stem cells.

A particular focus has been the Polycomb epigenetic system, where we have proposed an all-or-nothing epigenetic switching mechanism, with epigenetic gene silencing directly antagonised by transcription. Overall, as epigenetic systems are central to health, understanding how they work at a fundamental level is of vital importance.


Selected publications

  • Zhao Y et al. (2020) Temperature-dependent growth contributes to long-term cold sensing. Nature 583: 825-829.
  • Yang H et al. (2017) Distinct phases of Polycomb silencing to hold epigenetic memory of cold in ArabidopsisScience 357: 1142-1145.
  • Berry S et al. (2017) Slow chromatin dynamics allow polycomb target genes to filter fluctuations in transcription factor activity. Cell Systems 4: 445-457.e8.


Not based at the Gurdon Institute