What do Biological Cells and Democracy Have in Common?

February 19, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Scientists at the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI) and Harvard University offer a groundbreaking new perspective on how genes determine and regulate the functional identity of a cell. The study, titled Attractors and Democratic Dynamics, appears in the latest issue of Science. It examines views of cell regulation and suggests a model that accounts for a cell's robustness to random perturbations and its sensitivity to specific environmental changes.

The process by which a cell becomes differentiated into, for example, a muscle cell, a neuron, or a blood cell is largely determined by the expression, or "transcription," of genes. This mechanism is of prime importance to many biologists, including developmental biologists studying stem cells and oncologists concerned with how normal cells become cancerous.

The article shows that to accurately study transcriptional regulation, researchers must consider the interplay between individual genes and collective states. Dr. Yaneer Bar-Yam, one of the article's authors and president of NECSI, explains, “A biological cell is a self-governing community of molecules, like a society. As a society, cell regulation is intermediate between a centrally controlled autocratic government and a democracy. What we need is a way to study cells that take both individual and collective gene action into account.”

Dr. Bar-Yam compares different scenarios to different methods of seeking political change: "Some people who want to make a policy change appeal to those in power--the ministers, the kings, the leaders. Others go to the people and try to affect popular opinion. In reality, both influence the behavior of a nation, and the interactions between individuals and interest groups should be taken into account." Indeed, a cell's robustness to random influence coupled with its ability to quickly respond to certain cues can be explained by the interplay between individual genes and collective states. While the concerted influence of thousands of genes keeps cells steady and protected against random noise, the master genes can cause significant changes so the cell quickly adapts to changing conditions. To incorporate these ideas into current research, the authors describe control coefficients that measure change in collective states relative to individual gene transcription level changes.

There are also important implications for medical research. Dr. Benjamin de Bivort of Harvard University and NECSI, another of the article's authors, believes this more complete picture of cell regulation can have a significant impact on the future of medicine, "With this framework we can better understand how a cell attains, and maintains, its identity. From oncologists to stem cell researchers, scientists can use this framework to create more effective methods for predicting, manipulating, and controlling the fate of cells." Dr. Dion Harmon of NECSI, another of the article’s authors, agrees, "The implications are wide-ranging. These findings could one day help develop better medications that target a large number of genes to cure diseases like cancer."

Provided by New England Complex Systems Institute

Explore further: Ten things to know about thunderstorms that strike at night

Related Stories

Where is solar power headed?

July 22, 2015

Most experts agree that to have a shot at curbing the worst impacts of climate change, we need to extricate our society from fossil fuels and ramp up our use of renewable energy.

Going green: Microalgae as a feedstuff for grower steers

July 21, 2015

Algae are organisms so environmentally adaptable that they flourish in wastelands, sewage and saline bodies of water. They can grow in high densities, in the dark and in the presence of high concentrations of nitrogen and ...

Citizen science for salamanders in Southwest New Hampshire

July 20, 2015

Every spring, as the earth thaws and warm rains drench New England, thousands of amphibians make their way to vernal pools to breed. It's a magical time. For the salamanders and frogs undertaking their annual migration, it's ...

A most singular nano-imaging technique (Update)

July 16, 2015

Just as proteins are one of the basic building blocks of biology, nanoparticles can serve as the basic building blocks for next generation materials. In keeping with this parallel between biology and nanotechnology, a proven ...

Recommended for you

Researchers design first artificial ribosome

July 29, 2015

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Northwestern University have engineered a tethered ribosome that works nearly as well as the authentic cellular component, or organelle, that produces all the proteins ...

Meet the high-performance single-molecule diode

July 29, 2015

A team of researchers from Berkeley Lab and Columbia University has passed a major milestone in molecular electronics with the creation of the world's highest-performance single-molecule diode. Working at Berkeley Lab's Molecular ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.