University of Dundee

Biological networks: interdisciplinary collaboration sheds light on what makes cells robust

02 Sep 2014
Feature: 

A collaboration between two interdisciplinary research groups at the University of Dundee has led to a better understanding of how cells are able to maintain their stability and function in response to environmental challenges and potential threats. 

The laboratories of Professors Julian Blow and Tim Newman have published a paper showing how a cell’s gene regulatory network – the system that allows a cell to produce the right set of proteins in response to external and internal environmental triggers – is wired up to maintain its stability. 

Dr. Albergante and Professors Blow and Newman show that gene regulatory networks possess a property they call ‘Buffered Qualitative Stability’ (BQS): each network is wired up so that unpredictable changes to it - including the random addition of new links - will be compensated for and will not cause instability. The robustness of the networks to the addition of new links may help organisms remain stable even as they evolve. Strikingly, the gene regulatory network of a cancer cell does not match up with the predictions of BQS, suggesting that cancer cells may be less robust to change than normal cells.

Professor Blow, Dean of the School of Research at the College of Life Sciences commented on the potential significance of these findings, “We analysed data in a large number and variety of organisms and found that the BQS theory successfully predicted features associated with robustness of gene networks in all these systems. However the observation that gene networks in cancer cells do not correspond to the BQS model suggests that stability is compromised in these cells, which perhaps allows them to evade treatment. We are optimistic that a greater understanding of BQS will help scientists to better design drugs for a range of diseases.”

Professor Newman, Dean of the School of Engineering, Physics and Mathematics in the College of Art, Science and Engineering said, “This research is a great example of the potential of interdisciplinary collaboration, a particular strength of research in Dundee. This paper is the result of the teamwork of two groups of researchers across two Colleges, and we are particularly lucky to have Luca Albergante, a postdoctoral researcher in my Group, whose computer science expertise has been integral in the development of the BQS theory and in building the necessary tools to test the theory on real data.” 

Dr Albergante added, “This project could not have succeeded without three very different mindsets and perspectives coming together to tackle the fundamental question of biological robustness.”

The paper is published on 2 September in eLife the first fully online, peer-reviewed, open access scientific journal for the biomedical and life sciences established at the end of 2012 and sponsored by the Wellcome Trust, the Howard Hughes Foundation and the Max Planck Society.

 

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