Queuing theory helps physicist understand protein recycling

April 22, 2014

We've all waited in line and most of us have gotten stuck in a check-out line longer than we would like. For Will Mather, assistant professor of physics and an instructor with the College of Science's Integrated Science Curriculum, studying lines, or queues, has been crucial in trying to understand how cells deal with bottlenecks that limit the recycling of proteins.

The work, submitted during Mather's first semester as an assistant professor, has received attention from the National Science Foundation in the form of a $960,000 grant.

Leveraging the history of queuing theory, and working at the intersection of statistics, physics, engineering, biology, and computer science, Mather tries to extend an understanding of waiting in line to how cells operate, especially as it relates to what the consequences could be of traffic jams inside cells.

"If you consider the analogy of a subway, it's a fairly apt one," Mather said. "A subway can deal with a certain number of customers with its limited number of outlets. If the flow is correct, the system works fine. If people arrive in bunches, it can jam the system. The same is true in cells."

In the subway analogy, enzymes act as gatekeepers while proteins are the customers. The proteins are trying to be recycled, so they can be made into other proteins, but the enzymes can only handle so much traffic and proteins are either not recycled or they need to find alternative pathways.

"By better understanding these pathways we find associations with development, inflammation, cancer – they are all potential areas of impact," Mather said. "In principle, every cell has limited resources available to recycle proteins. The paths associated with what we consider positive development for those proteins might cross talk with paths associated with information transmission, or less desirable outcomes such as cancer.

"What we're doing now is using a simple, common bacterium, E. coli, and using to see how circuits behave in in an effort to understand the effect of these pathways," Mather said.

By understanding these bottlenecks, Mather seeks to discover the mechanism behind how naturally alleviate bottlenecks by directing their proteins to different 'servers' to be recycled. He said his research will then produce intuitive and powerful quantitative models for these bottlenecks, as well as create new molecular tools for and biotechnology in general, which will allow for the construction of large, scalable bio-circuits in bacteria.

This, he says he believes, will push the frontiers of both traditional and synthetic biology.

Mather received his bachelor's degree and Ph.D. from Georgia Tech. He arrived at Virginia Tech in 2012.

Explore further: Deciphering cellular 'roadmap' of disease-related proteins

Related Stories

Plants recycle too

February 13, 2014

A research team from VIB and Ghent University (Belgium), and Staffan Persson from the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology in Potsdam (Germany) has now identified a new protein complex which is crucial for endocytosis ...

Non-invasive technique to "light up" animal cells

March 21, 2014

A Florida State University scientist is part of a team of researchers that has developed a non-invasive way to "light up" animal cells, a development that could significantly advance cell-based therapies and pave the way ...

Synthetic gene circuits pump up cell signals

April 8, 2014

(Phys.org) —Synthetic genetic circuitry created by researchers at Rice University is helping them see, for the first time, how to regulate cell mechanisms that degrade the misfolded proteins implicated in Parkinson's, Huntington's ...

Recommended for you

Huddling rats behave as a 'super-organism'

September 3, 2015

Rodents huddle together when it is cold, they separate when it is warm, and at moderate temperatures they cycle between the warm center and the cold edges of the group. In a new study published in PLOS Computational Biology, ...

Fighting explosives pollution with plants

September 3, 2015

Biologists at the University of York have taken an important step in making it possible to clean millions of hectares of land contaminated by explosives.

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.