CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Biological systems, including cells, tissues and organs, can function properly only when their parts are working in harmony. These systems are often dauntingly complex: Inside a single cell, thousands of proteins interact with each other to determine how the cell will develop and respond to its environment.
To understand this great complexity, a growing number of biologists and bioengineers are turning to computational models. This approach, known as systems biology, has been used successfully to model the behavior of cells grown in laboratory dishes. However, until now, no one has used it to model the behavior of cells inside a living animal.
In the March 22 online edition of the journal Science Signaling, researchers from MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital report that they have created a new computational model that describes how intestinal cells in mice respond to a natural chemical called tumor necrosis factor (TNF).
The work demonstrates that systems biology offers a way to get a handle on the complexity of living systems and raises the possibility that it could be used to model cancer and other complex diseases, says Douglas Lauffenburger, head of MIT's Department of Biological Engineering and a senior author of the paper.
"You're not likely to explain most diseases in terms of one genetic deficit or one molecular impairment," Lauffenburger says. "You need to understand how many molecular components, working in concert, give rise to how cells and tissues are formed either properly or improperly."
Systems biology, a field that has grown dramatically in the past 10 years, focuses on analyzing how the components of a biological system interact to produce the behavior of that system for example, the many proteins that interact with each other inside a cell to respond to hormones or other external stimuli.
"The beauty of systems biology is that it doesn't ignore the biologic
|Contact: Caroline McCall|
Massachusetts Institute of Technology