HOUSTON (June 16, 2014) How does a stem cell decide what path to take? In a way, it's up to the wisdom of the crowd.
The DNA in a pluripotent stem cell is bombarded with waves of proteins whose ebb and flow nudge the cell toward becoming blood, bone, skin or organs. A new theory by scientists at Rice University shows the cell's journey is neither a simple step-by-step process nor all random.
Theoretical biologist Peter Wolynes and postdoctoral fellow Bin Zhang set out to create a mathematical tool to analyze large, realistic gene networks. As a bonus, their open-access study to be published this week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences helped them understand that the process by which stem cells differentiate is a many-body problem.
"Many-body" refers to physical systems that involve interactions between large numbers of particles. Scientists assume these many bodies conspire to have a function in every system, but the "problem" is figuring out just what that function is. In the new work, these bodies consist not only of the thousands of proteins expressed by embryonic stem cells but also DNA binding sites that lead to feedback loops and other "attractors" that prompt the cell to move from one steady state to the next until it reaches a final configuration.
To test their tool, the researchers looked at the roles of eight key proteins and how they rise and fall in number, bind and unbind to DNA and degrade during stem cell differentiation. Though the interactions may not always follow a precise path, their general pattern inevitably leads to the desired result for the same reason a strand of amino acids will inevitably fold into the proper protein: because the landscape dictates that it be so.
Wolynes called the new work a "stylized," simplified model meant to give a general but accurate overview of how cell networks function. It's based on a theory he formed in 2003 with Masaki Sasa
|Contact: David Ruth|