Changing the face of biology

September 15, 2003

BETHESDA, Md. - Modular design in living systems and decision-making at the cellular level are the themes of two new grants, totaling more than $31 million over 5 years, awarded this month to research teams at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The grants are part of an NIGMS initiative to establish Centers of Excellence in Complex Biomedical Systems Research, the first two of which were announced last year. This year, NIGMS is awarding $3 million to Harvard's Bauer Center for Genomics Research, as part of a 5-year project with total anticipated funding of approximately $15 million; and $3.6 million to MIT's Computational and Systems Biology Initiative, as part of another 5-year project with total funding expected to reach $16 million.

"One of the great goals of 21st-century science is to develop a comprehensive understanding of the building blocks of the body's cells and tissues and to determine how complex biological systems operate in both health and disease," said NIH Director Elias Zerhouni, M.D.

"Research projects such as these at Harvard and MIT promise to change the face of biology, not only in terms of scientists' understanding of biological complexity but also in the way scientists from diverse fields work together to solve today's most challenging problems in biomedicine," Zerhouni added.

Although each of the new centers will have a different focus, their approaches both reflect the overall aim of NIGMS' initiative: to unravel the complex patterns of biological interactions by making sense of the overwhelming wealth of data about the characteristics and functions of individual molecules generated by decades of research in fields such as genomics and molecular biology.

Since accomplishing this ambitious aim is well beyond the ability of any single researcher or laboratory, the NIGMS-supported centers of excellence are designed to bring together scientific teams with expertise in both the biomedical and quantitative sciences, including mathematicians, physicists, computer scientists and engineers--as well as biologists.

At Harvard's new center, led by Bauer Center director Andrew Murray, Ph.D., researchers from Harvard--along with collaborators at Stanford University, Canada's University of Calgary, the California Institute of Technology, and Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science and Hebrew University of Jerusalem--will explore various topics related to the theme of "modular biology." The researchers will study how collections of genes or proteins work together to carry out particular biological functions--ranging from the mating of yeast cells to social behavior in cichlid fish. In essence, the team will test the hypothesis that such collections behave as discrete "functional modules," each of which performs a specific function essential to an organism's survival and reproduction.

"The notion that functional modules at the molecular and cellular levels represent a fundamental organizing principle at all levels of biology is an extremely intriguing one that is worthy of detailed exploration," said Judith H. Greenberg, Ph.D., acting director of NIGMS.

MIT's new center is part of the MIT Computational and Systems Biology Initiative (CSBi), led by Peter Sorger, Ph.D. and Bruce Tidor, Ph.D., CSBi co-chairs, and Brigitta Tadmor, Ph.D., CSBi executive director. CSBi researchers will focus on projects related to the emerging field of systems biology--a field at the interface between biology and engineering. Experts in computer science, basic biology, cancer research, biological engineering, environmental health, chemical engineering, and microsystems research will team up to explore "biological circuits" in human cells and tissues. By combining hypothesis-driven experimentation with computer-based analysis and modeling of living systems, the researchers hope to predict how biological circuits function under normal circumstances and how they go awry in disease.

"Understanding the interactions among the various components in cells and the ways those components communicate with one another is key to deciphering how cells make decisions vital to life processes," said Greenberg of NIGMS.

"We are excited about the opportunity to support these two new centers at Harvard and MIT, whose unique approaches and multi-talented teams will serve as models for future research in complex biological systems," she added.
NIGMS is one of the 27 components of the National Institutes of Health, the premier federal agency for biomedical research. Its mission is to support basic biomedical research that lays the foundation for advances in disease diagnosis, treatment and prevention.

More information about each of the new centers can be found at the following links:

* Harvard-Led Team Will Study 'Modular Design' in Living Systems With Support from NIGMS Center of Excellence Grant []

* NIH Grant Aids MIT Systems Biology []

Additional information about NIGMS' efforts in supporting complex biomedical systems research can be found on the Complex Biological Systems Initiatives page [] on the Institute's Web site.


Dan Hogan, Office of Communications and Public Liaison
NIH/National Institute of General Medical Sciences

Laura Garwin, Director of Research Affairs
Bauer Center for Genomics Research, Harvard University

Brigitta Tadmor, Executive Director
CSBi, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

NIH/National Institute of General Medical Sciences

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