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Systems Biology and Sustainability

Right here in Seattle, at the Institute for Systems Biology, Dr. Nitin Baliga and his group are taking a systems level approach to understand how organisms respond to complex changes in their environment.

Systems Biology and Sustainability

 

Seattle area biologists are using cutting edge mathematics and biological techniques to better understand how we can harness nature for sustainability. The term systems biology brings to mind images of complex mathematics, signaling pathways, and mathematical simulations of cellular function. While people continue to debate the definition of systems biology, a number of research groups across the world are actively trying to get a systems level view of human biology in order to get a better handle on the molecular basis of disease and to develop better drugs for personalized medicine. However, not everyone is trying to just develop better drugs using systems biology. Right here in Seattle, at the Institute for Systems Biology, Dr. Nitin Baliga and his group are taking a systems level approach to understand how organisms respond to complex changes in their environment.

An organism and its environment have a complex relationship. How does an organism respond when its habitat changes? The answer is not simple. A number of events happen following a change in the environment, impacting a variety of signaling pathways and other processes. All these systems combine to change cellular behavior. Since these processes are interlinked and interdependent, only a systems biology approach can shed true light and perhaps allow scientists to develop predictive models to the response of organisms to environmental changes. Being able to understand and forecast these fluctuations is the main focus of Dr. Baliga’s research. His group is developing complex mathematical models from a variety of experiments, including shifts in mRNA expression, protein-protein interactions and metabolite concentrations. The goal is to predict new behavior in face of novel environmental perturbations.

So what does all this have to do with sustainability? One of Dr. Baliga’s interests is to use predictive mathematical models to design circuits (e.g. regulatory networks) that could be used in environmental clean up. A systems level understanding of organisms is also likely to help us understand how biomass generates energy and potentially maximize its capability. Dr. Baliga is not the only Washington area researcher actively involved with using systems biology for environmental applications. The Environmental Molecular Sciences Lab at Pacific Northwestern National Laboratory is using a systems biology approach to understand the gene and protein networks involved in the photosynthesis and nitrogen fixation in cyanobacteria. Knowledge gleaned by this research can be applied to improved solar energy conversion, an improved understanding of biofuel production, and other applications.

 

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