Caltech to be part of $15.5-million federal grantto understand how living cells communicate
A California Institute of Technology research group that specializes in distributed information systems has been named one of the collaborators in the Alpha Project, a $15.5-million, five-year program for advancing knowledge of how living cells respond to information and communicate with each other.
The Caltech research group is headed by Jehoshua Bruck, who is the Gordon and Betty Moore Professor of Computation and Neural Systems and Electrical Engineering at Caltech. Bruck will receive more than $1 million of the $15.5 million Alpha Project grant, which has been awarded by the National Institutes of Health's National Human Genome Research Institute to the Molecular Sciences Institute, which will oversee the coordinated effort. The Alpha Project will also involve research groups from MIT, UC Berkeley, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
The aim of the Alpha Project is to "enable broad understanding of cellular and organismic behavior and work towards making predictive models of biological systems that will serve to radically improve researchers' abilities to understand biology by providing them with advanced methods and tools to probe important biological questions." Bruck's part of the work will be in the analysis, abstraction, and modeling of cellular signal transduction.
"Basically, signal transduction is the regulatory process that controls how a cell communicates with other cells, or senses things in its environment," Bruck explains. "We'll study this chemical signal processing in baker's yeast cells, which are very similar to human cells in the way they carry out signal transduction. Hence, yeast will serve as our 'model system.'"
The entire Alpha Project will be focused on studying the pheromone signal pathway in baker's yeast. This biological pathway involves a relatively small number of about 25 genes, so it is hoped that thoroughly understanding the system will provide new insights on how cells respond to stimuli and communicate in humans.
Bruck has interacted for the last two years with the Molecular Sciences Institute on creating computer algorithms for simulating biological regulatory systems, which is similar to the work he will do on the Alpha Project. "We are not planning to conduct experiments with yeast in my lab," he says. "Our part will be to model the whole process, and create simulations to try to predict the behavior of the biological system.
"Also, we plan to learn from biology about new principles in circuits for computation and communications, because at present, we simply don't know how to build artificial systems that compute, communicate, and evolve like biological cells."
Success for the overall mission of the Alpha Project will mean advances that could lead to new ways of dealing with diseases such as cancer and diabetes.
"At the least, we'll definitely understand this communication pathway in cells," Bruck says of the biological goals. "And if we are able to understand the mechanisms in a way that leads to advances in curing diseases, and this information can also be applied to engineering systems, it would be even better."
Much of Bruck's research focuses on distributed information systems, which he defines as "a system comprising more than a single entity, such as a group of computing devices that interact by a wired or wireless communication network."
The Alpha Project will be the flagship project at the Molecular Sciences Institute's new Center for Genomic Experimentation and Computation.
The Molecular Sciences Institute, headquartered in Berkeley, is an independent, nonprofit research laboratory that combines genomic experimentation with computer modeling. The mission of the institute is to predict the behavior of cells and organisms in response to defined genetic and environmental changes. Progress toward this goal will significantly increase our understanding of biological systems and help catalyze radical changes in how diseases are understood and treated.
In addition to the new $15.5-million funding from the National Human Genome Research Institute, the Molecular Science Institute is supported by other federal grants and funds provided by foundations and corporations. The institute's Web address is www.molsci.org.
Contact: Robert Tindol (626) 395-3631