Wednesday, 27 January 2016

ARTICLE: Exploring noise in cellular biology

The chaos within: Exploring noise in cellular biology

  • Biology requires exquisitely precise chemistry but exists in a very noisy world: we review how science is learning about how this randomness affects cell biology and how life has evolved to deal with it
We're used to thinking about machines as robust, hard-wearing objects made from solid materials like metal and plastics. If they crack, split or overheat they are liable to malfunction, and if we subject them to too much jostling and shaking we're asking for trouble. However, the biochemical machines responsible for keeping us alive work in a rather different world -- they're made from soft, organic materials, and contained in a disorganised bag (the cell) that is constantly shaken, bumping our machines against each other and other cellular inhabitants. How can the delicate processes required by living organisms take place in this chaotic environment? And how can scientific progress be made in such a tumultuous, unpredictable world?

Extrinsic factors can modulate the stability of essential, but noisy, cellular circuits: here we see that changes in transcription rate, provoked by differences in mitochondrial populations, affects the "landscape" underlying stem cell behaviour.

Iain recently wrote an article, targeted at a broad audience, looking at some of these questions. One of the most important cellular processes that has to take place in this chaotic world is that of 'gene expression': the interpretation of genetic blueprints which describe how to build cellular machinery, and the subsequent construction process. Gene expression can be likened to using a bad photocopier to copy books from a library that opens and closes randomly, then using these photocopies (which are prone to decay) to construct machines. This problematic environment gives rise to many medically important random effects, including bacterial resistance to antibiotics and differing responses to anti-cancer drugs. We are particularly interested in how fluctuating power supplies (see our other blog articles!) influence the cell's ability to produce these machines, and what effects this unreliable power has on medically important processes. The article -- available here and appearing in the expository magazine Significance here -- takes a look at how cellular noise arises, current techniques for its detection and analysis, and its influence on important biological phenomena. Iain [blog article also here]

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