It is tricky enough to get a soccer team of eleven players to cooperate and work as one – but what would it be like if there were 25,000 players on the field? What would the rules be like, and how many referees would it take to make sure that the rules were followed? As it happens, our genomes consist of networks of roughly 25,000 interacting genes, and these networks are obviously very stable and resilient to changed conditions. Out of billions of cells, not a single one falls into chaos. How can order be maintained? A question that scientists have been pondering since the 1960s may now have been answered by theoretical physicists at Lund University, Sweden.
In the most recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, professor Carsten Peterson and his collaborators Björn Samuelsson and Carl Troein demonstrate how this is possible. The American physician and scientist Stuart Kauffman – a pioneer in the field, who formulated and attempted to solve the problem as early as 1967 – is their co-author.
At any given time, each of the 25,000 genes in a cell may or may not be producing a protein – each gene is on or off, to use language from the world of computers. A gene can affect other genes, turning them on or off. A simple case is that two genes are controlling a third gene. To activate this third gene, both the controlling genes might need to be active, or maybe only one or the other.
Göran Frankel | alfa
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