For scientists, the Internet is more than an information superhighway and airports aren't just places where planes take off and land. They are examples of complex networks that can help researchers study even more complicated ones in the body.
Networks, whether social or cellular, share a number of features. Each one is a system made up of different elements that connect through important centers of activity called hubs. Hubs could be Web pages linked to many other sites or major airports that route passengers to additional cities. Communication occurs within the network, letting it organize itself and even change over time.
Any network can serve as a model for understanding another because all these systems operate by a similar set of rules, says physicist Luis Amaral at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
Amaral models the networks of the Internet and air travel, but he also maps metabolic networks—the intricate pathways by which cells generate the energy needed to carry out biological processes spanning the production of proteins to the breakdown of drugs. He creates simple computational models that show how the paths of these complicated networks connect and communicate.
Knowing all the details about the body's networks may help scientists learn to rewire them to prevent certain diseases, just like air traffic controllers re-route planes to avoid thunderstorms.