Duke Scientists to Explore Networks and Systems of Biology

July 30, 2007

DURHAM, N.C. -- The National Institute for General Medical Sciences has awarded Duke University a $14.5 million, five-year grant to establish a new national center for systems biology in the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy (IGSP).

The center will bring together experimentalists and modeling experts from biology, statistics, computer science, mathematics, physics and engineering to explore how the intricate biological networks that govern living cells operate at three different time scales: minutes, days and millions of years. Their findings should be of use to understanding basic biology and human diseases.

"We have all these pieces in place -- the human genome, the parts list of thousands of cellular components and some preliminary network diagrams on how all these parts work together," said center director Philip Benfey, the Paul Kramer professor of biology. "Now we need to pull it all together and perform quantitative studies on how these networks actually operate in varying conditions, in different organisms, across different time scales."

That's where math and computer science come in, explains Duke mathematics professor John Harer, who is associate director of the new center. "These complex biological problems are motivating an amazing amount of new mathematical and computer science. Each new laboratory technology can provide terabytes of new data, and then we have to figure out how to merge that data with what we already know. But we are getting to the point where we can create models that reflect the elaborate structure of biological systems and make real predictions.”

The relatively new field of systems biology is often described as the opposite of the "reductionist" biology of the last century, in which scientists went to great lengths to isolate and identify a single component of a living cell. Systems biologists now want to take all those hard-won singular findings and find out how they operate together in the dynamic systems of the cell and the organism. The work is enabled by huge data sets like the human genome and powerful computers.

The Duke IGSP’s Center for System Biology will start with six projects involving the study of regulatory networks controlling yeast and mammalian cell cycles, development in plant roots and embryos, and population variation in yeast and sea urchins.

In addition to active Duke faculty, the center will bring in guest scientists through sabbatical and fellowship programs, and encompass undergraduate students involved in a new Howard Hughes Medical Institute research initiative at Duke focused on systems biology. Faculty affiliated with the center will also add systems biology themes to graduate education programs, teach several new undergraduate systems biology courses, and administer a certificate program designed for biology, mathematics and computer science majors.