Blacksburg, Va. -- Math-based computer models are a powerful tool for discovering the details of complex living systems. John Tyson, professor of biology at Virginia Tech, is creating such models to discover how cells process information and make decisions.
"Cells receive information in the form of chemical signals, physical attachments to other cells, or radiation damage, for instance," Tyson said. "On the basis of this information, the cells must make the correct response, such as to grow and divide, or to stop growing and repair damage, or to commit suicide."
The question for a molecular biologist is: What are the underlying molecular mechanisms that implement these information processing systems? "Just as computer is an information processing system, with silicon chips, wires, mother board, clock, and power source, a cell is a an information processing system made of genes, messenger RNAs, proteins, and enzymes," Tyson said. "Somehow these molecules interact with each other to detect signals, make decisions, and implement the proper response."
Tyson and other biologists want to know how jumbles of molecules can figure out how a cell should respond to its environment in order to survive, grow, and reproduce. "So we do what any good engineer would do. We create a mathematical model of the components and their interactions, and let the computer work out the details."
Tyson will present his findings at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting February 18-22 in San Diego, as part of a session on "Moving Across Scales: Mathematics for Investigating Biological Hierarchies," which includes talks ranging from "HIV interventions in Africa" to the "Neural Dynamics of Decision Making." Tyson will talk about "Molecular Network Dynamics and Cell Physiology," or the cell as an information-processing system.
The speakers in this session will illustrate how math models help scientists reason across sca
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