Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Decomposing complex science

Luis Serrano is the coordinator of the Systems Biology programme at the CRG, one of the centres at the PRBB. In a talk he gave last Wednesday at the park, he mentioned some interesting projects his lab is working on. One of the most exciting ones, for me, was the global quantitative understanding of a free living organism for the first time ever. For this they have chosen Mycoplasma, the smallest free living bacteria, with only 689 genes. They are doing all sort of things with it: GFP constructs of all genes to look at their in vivo localisation, K.O. of all genes to decipher their functions, microarrays to understand gene expression, pulldown of complexes, metabolism studies, protein-protein interaction studies, electron microscopy, NMR, … everything that can be done, really! The idea is to put all the information together in a computer in order to have a complete model and be able to make simulations and hypotheses. If this works, will we be able to say, for the first time, that we understand 100% how an organism functions and that we are able to predict the consequences of any change in the system with a high confidence? It sounds like science fiction, but it might not be impossible….!

Talking about science fiction, but a more practical type, Serrano briefly touched on another area in his lab, which is new therapies such as the “doctor in the cell” or the “living pill”. In brief, the first one (the “doctor”) would be a genetic system that monitors the status of the cell, checks whether everything is OK and finds out and solves what has gone wrong. They are doing this in collaboration with another group at the CRG, that of Mark Isalan (I’ll tell you more about his work another day). The “living pill”, as I understood it, would be modified bacteria that can get into a cell and integrate as mitochondria (recapitulating Nature, since it seems mitochondria come from intracellular bacteria) so they can be used as a vehicle for gene therapy. Pretty cool, eh?

By the way, it has just been announced that Luis Serrano has been nominated a member of the Royal Spanish Academy of Sciences. He’s the last of the less than 200 members elected since the Academy was created in the XVI century…!

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