Computational biologists at Virginia Tech have mathematically modeled the process that regulates cell division in a common bacterium. The model was developed to confirm hypotheses, provide new insights, and identify gaps in the scientists' understanding of the molecular machinery that governs replication of DNA and cell division in Caulobacter crescentus, a bacterium related to the bacteria that fix nitrogen in legumes and to the bacteria that cause brucellosis in cattle and Rocky Mountain spotted fever in humans.

"A lot is known about genes that control this process," said John Tyson, a biology professor at Virginia Tech. "The mechanism is very complicated, involving dozens of genes and even more proteins. From experimental observations, it is possible to construct a hypothetical wiring diagram of how these genes and proteins interact. Our goal is to convert the wiring diagram into mathematical equations that can be solved on a computer so that we can say with more confidence how the mechanism will govern cell growth, division, and differentiation."

The team's goal is also to demonstrate the role of computation in understanding biology. "We want to convert intuitive expectations into mathematical equations that can be tested more rigorously," Tyson said. In the case of Caulobacter crescentus, the scientists will deploy the mathematical model to make testable predictions regarding the role of mutant genes play in cell division.

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