Centuries ago, scientists began reducing the physics of the universe into a few, key laws described by a handful of parameters. Such simple descriptions have remained elusive for complex biological systems until now.
Emory University biophysicist Ilya Nemenman has identified parameters for several biochemical networks that distill the entire behavior of these systems into simple equivalent dynamics. The discovery may hold the potential to streamline the development of drugs and diagnostic tools, by simplifying the research models.
The resulting paper, now available online, will be published in the March issue of Physical Biology.
"It appears that the details of the complexity of these biological systems don't matter, as long as some aggregate property, which we've calculated, remains the same," says Nemenman, associate professor of physics and biology. He conducted the analysis with Golan Bel and Brian Munsky of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
'A beautiful result'
The simplicity of the discovery makes it "a beautiful result," Nemenman says. "We hope that this theoretical finding will also have practical applications."
He cites the air molecules moving about his office: "All of the crazy interactions of these molecules hitting each other boils down to a simple behavior: An ideal gas law. You could take the painstaking route of studying the dynamics of every molecule, or you could simply measure the temperature, volume and pressure of the air in the room. The second method is clearly easier, and it gives you just as much information."
Nemenman wanted to find similar parameters for the incredibly complex dynamics of cellular networks, involving hundreds, or even thousands, of variables among different interacting molecules. Among the key questions: What determines which features in these networks are relevant? And if they have simple equivalent dynamics, did nature choose to make th
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