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Work with power grids leads to cell biology discovery
Date:3/17/2008

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Gene therapy, in which a working gene is inserted into a cell to replace a faulty or absent gene, is a promising experimental technique for the prevention and treatment of disease.

Now a research team led by a Northwestern University physicist reports that a counterintuitive approach also holds promise. The targeted removal of genes -- the exact opposite of what a gene therapist would do -- can restore cellular function in cells with genetic defects, such as mutations.

Published online in the journal Molecular Systems Biology, the results have ramifications for medical research as well as for optimizing certain metabolic processes used in the production of biofuels, such as ethanol.

After gathering extensive experimental information on the metabolic networks of three different single-celled organisms, the researchers built a general quantitative model that can be used to control and restore biological function to cells impaired by a genetic defect or by other factors that compromise gene activity. Their network-based method does this by targeted deletion of genes, forcing the cell to either bypass the functions affected by the defective gene or to compensate for the lost function.

The research, led by Adilson E. Motter, assistant professor of physics and astronomy in Northwesterns Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and the papers lead author, grew out of Motters earlier work on the U.S. power grid -- another complex system that is very different from biological systems but also with many similarities.

After the 2003 Northeast blackout, where a sequence of failures in the power grid led to the largest outage in U.S. history, experts determined that the event could have been reduced or avoided by instigating small intentional blackouts in the system during the initial hours of instability.

And the same could be valid in biology, where a defective gene may trigger a cascade of failures
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Contact: Megan Fellman
fellman@northwestern.edu
847-491-3115
Northwestern University
Source:Eurekalert

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