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

Laura Garwin, Director of Research Affairs
Bauer Center for Genomics Research, Harvard University
(617) 496-9278 

The following news release from Harvard University's Bauer Center for Genomics Research has been reproduced here with permission.


Cambridge, MA—Modular design is a familiar concept in all kinds of engineered systems, from computer hardware and software to automobiles. Now an interdisciplinary team of scientists, supported by a five-year, $15-million grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, is asking whether biological systems are also modular, at the molecular and cellular levels. At the same time the team, centered around Harvard University's Bauer Center for Genomics Research, will be conducting an experiment in the organization of biological research.

The field of molecular biology, which started 50 years ago with Watson and Crick's discovery of the DNA double helix, has yielded powerful new understanding by reducing biology to the behavior of individual molecules. The newer field of genomics, born from the ability to catalog and investigate the functions of thousands of genes at a time, yields a more integrated, genome-scale view of biology. Yet genomics can often overwhelm investigators with the volume of data that can be collected, and the complexity of the interactions that are revealed.

The Bauer Center group will combine the strengths of these two fields by focusing on the collections of genes or proteins that work together to carry out particular biological functions—ranging from the mating of yeast cells to social behavior in cichlid fish. The group 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. Furthermore, the researchers propose, these modules will be shown to reflect general 'design principles' shaped by evolution—principles that may provide a theoretical foundation for the study of organization in biology.

Support for this ambitious project comes from a grant awarded this month by NIGMS, in the amount of $3 million for the first year. Total funding over five years is expected to be approximately $15 million. The project is part of an NIGMS initiative to establish Centers of Excellence in Complex Biomedical Systems Research, the first two of which were announced last year [link to previous news release?]. In keeping with the aims of this initiative, the Bauer Center group comprises scientists from many disciplines who will combine theory, computation and modeling with experimental approaches to unravel the complexity of living systems.

The Bauer Center is itself an experiment, in a new way of organizing research in the life sciences. Part of Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences, but not belonging to any department, the center is home to a group of ten Fellows— young, independent scientists who run their own small research groups but also collaborate extensively with one another, and with scientists in neighboring departments. The center is dedicated to the idea that young scientists in close proximity to one another, relieved of teaching and administrative duties, and committed to interdisciplinary research, can achieve together what none of them could have accomplished separately. The current crop of ten Fellows includes two mathematicians, a physicist, and a computational biologist, as well as experimental biologists with expertise ranging from microbiology to behavioral neuroscience, working on organisms from bacteria to yeast, plants and fish.

William C. Kirby, Ph.D., Harvard's Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, welcomed the Center of Excellence grant, saying, "This grant from NIH is gratifying not only in its generosity, but in its recognition of the particular merits and promise of the Bauer Center. That this hive of minds, creatively connected across the disciplines, can apply itself to the critical questions in biomedical research today, is encouraging for our future and a mark of our institutional commitment to scientific research more broadly."

The new Center of Excellence will extend beyond the walls of the Bauer Center to involve collaborators at Harvard's departments of physics, computer science, chemistry and chemical biology, and molecular and cellular biology; the Harvard Medical School; Stanford University; the University of Calgary; the California Institute of Technology; the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel; and Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The research program will comprise eight interacting projects, including: applying computational approaches to identify and describe modules from experimental data; theoretical analysis of selected modules, to try to discover rules underlying their operation; and various experimental approaches to dissecting modules, evolving them in the laboratory, and studying their integration to control complex behaviors. (For a complete list of the projects, with a brief description of each one, please click here.)

A hallmark of the center's approach will be the close integration of theory, computation and experiment, which has been too rare in molecular and cell biology. "Theory and experiment have been inextricably linked in physics, but in biology they have separated like oil and water," said Andrew Murray, Ph.D., Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, director of the Bauer Center and lead investigator on the NIGMS grant. "We are now faced by more subtle problems and a tidal wave of data, which require theoreticians and experimentalists to make common cause to understand the principles that explain how cells have evolved to integrate hundreds of activities in a volume far smaller than the smallest manmade device. The NIGMS grant will enable the Fellows of the Bauer Center to play a leading role in this important quest."