Mathematics helps to understand random processes in living cells

Publication date: 10-02-2011

Maciej Dobrzyński, PhD student from the Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica (CWI) in Amsterdam, developed mathematical tools to study the role of random processes in cells. On 13 January he defended his PhD dissertation ‘Molecules in Motion: a theoretical study of noise in gene expression and cell signaling’ at the University of Amsterdam. Biochemical randomness can make bacteria resistant to antibiotics and cancer cells survive chemotherapy. Dobrzyński analyzed with mathematical tools parts of the cellular machinery and assessed under what circumstances random effects could be avoided and when organisms could benefit from them. Once verified experimentally, the theoretical insights might be of help to design treatments for infections caused by resistant bacteria, or malignant tumors.

Understanding of complex biochemical processes in living organisms is necessary for many purposes: for instance, for the design of personalized medicine, the use of micro-organisms to neutralize toxic waste or the production of human insulin. The conversion of knowledge into mathematical equations helps to predict the behaviour of organisms using computers, without actual experiments. This is not easy. Even a single biological cell contains millions of tiny molecules interacting in thousands of chemical reactions.

Biochemistry in such a tiny cell volume must be well coordinated in time and space in order for an organism to develop and to function; a mistake in recognizing food or the presence of a toxic substance can be catastrophic for a living being. Some errors or inaccuracies are due to random effects that are inevitable in such a small system. Dobrzyński poses that theories like his one can be used to understand how to influence or disrupt these processes. His work contributes to our understanding of fundamental principles responsible for variability between bacterial or cancer cells.

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Supervisors: Prof. dr. J.G. Verwer (CWI and University of Amsterdam) and Prof. dr. H.V. Westerhoff (VU University)

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