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Web Exclusives: Systems

Of Cells and Circuits
Stephanie Dutchen
Posted July 27, 2009

One of the center's computer models simulates how calcium and calcium-regulating molecules move in 3D inside a cell. Credit: Bridget Wilson, University of New Mexico
One of the center's computer models simulates how calcium and calcium-regulating molecules move in 3D inside a cell. Credit: Bridget Wilson, University of New Mexico

University of New Mexico pathologist Janet Oliver enjoyed a successful 20-year career taking microscopic pictures of where particular molecules can be found in cells. But as cell imaging technology grew more advanced, the sheer amount of information her experiments produced became impossible to wrap her head around.

"We threw up our hands and called in statisticians and mathematicians, because we had all sorts of good data from which we could not extract a story," she says.

And so began Oliver's journey into the world of systems biology. Now, she directs the newest systems biology center in the nation.

In special centers across the country, Oliver and other researchers from diverse fields—including biology and mathematics, chemistry and computer science—have joined forces to better understand complex, fundamental life processes. They combine experiments with computer models to create and test hypotheses about everything from how one tiny protein interacts with another to how entire organ systems or organisms work.

A collaboration between the University of New Mexico and Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories, Oliver's new center harnesses the brain and computer power of more than 50 biologists, biophysicists, physicists, mathematicians, engineers and materials scientists-plus faculty, postdocs and students Oliver has yet to recruit. Together, she says, just like systems biology itself, the team becomes "more than the sum of our parts."

The researchers' goal is to model how events in cells happen in space and time. First, Oliver and colleagues conduct experiments.

"Biochemists crunch up cells, isolate molecules and try to look at them in a test tube," says center co-director Bridget Wilson. "We believe we can actually observe and measure individual proteins interacting in live cells."

Next, mathematicians glean numbers from the data. Computer scientists take those numbers and program models that try to mimic what goes on in living cells. If the models accurately replicate reality, they can then be tweaked to try to predict what will happen in different situations. The simulations are so complex that it takes clusters of 100 to 1,000 desktop computers a week or more to churn through them.

A computer model of the cell membrane. Plasma membrane is red, endoplasmic reticulum (ER) is yellow, and mitochondria is blue. Credit: Bridget Wilson, UNM
A computer model of the cell membrane. Plasma membrane is red, endoplasmic reticulum (ER) is yellow, and mitochondria is blue. Credit: Bridget Wilson, UNM

When a simulation finishes running, Oliver's team promptly conducts more experiments to see if the model is right. The results of those experiments provide new numbers that adjust the model, and the cycle begins again.

Oliver's goal for the center's first project is to bring about better treatments for asthma and related infectious diseases. Right now, the team is trying to image and model something called an IgE receptor, which "tickles certain cells to release histamines and other things that make you feel wretched," says Oliver.

The first woman to head one of the National Centers for Systems Biology, Oliver hopes to give the next generation of scientists—many of whom are women and minorities—the best training in an expanding field. "There are going to be lots of opportunities in systems biology in the next 20 years," she says. "The problems in biology have become so complex."

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This page last reviewed on April 22, 2011