Montana State University

Using Math to Fight Disease

October 7, 2009 -- By Jody Sanford, College of Letters & Science

College Office

Tomas Gedeon, a professor of mathematics and a member in the Center for Computational Biology at MSU, is involved in the new field of systems biology which combines computational, modeling and analytical tools with traditional experiments to understand how networks of genes and proteins function together. The human genome project was finished in 2003 and identified all genes in our DNA. However, before it can deliver on its great promise for medicine, biologists must untangle a complicated web of interactions between genes, proteins and signaling molecules that determine the health of the cells in our bodies.

Gedeon was on sabbatical the entire 2008 and 2009 academic year and spent the fall of 2008 at the BioMaPS Institute for Quantitative Biology at Rutgers University. He worked with graduate student Kate Patterson and collaborators at Rutgers to develop a comprehensive model describing the origins of bistability in lac operon, a set of three genes in the bacterium E. Coli. This set of genes is switched off in the presence of glucose, a preferred food source for E. Coli. When glucose is replaced by lactose or a similar sugar, the three genes are switched on and their products help bring lactose into the cell and digest it. For intermediate concentrations of the sugar, some cells switch on their three genes while others do not. This bistable behavior is present in the gene regulatory circuits of many organisms, ranging from flies to mammals, and helps prevent accidental switching of the genes on or off.

The modeling work describing the origins of bistability in bacterial genes may provide insight into how cell populations in higher organisms control the effects of random cell perturbations which can lead to cancer, Gedeon said. The predictions of the new model will be tested by experimental collaborators at ETH Zurich, a Swiss science and technology university.

Dr. Gedeon’s work is funded with grants from several organizations, including the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense.

Updated: 04/15/2011