Last week brought us a wonderful development in computational biology – Stanford researchers wrote software that simulates the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium.
This is the first time anyone has simulated an entire organism. M. genitalium was the perfect candidate for Stanford’s research, because it has only 525 genes in its DNA (as opposed to E. Coli‘s 4,000+ genes, or a human’s 23,000+). This makes it easier to study the interactions between DNA, proteins, and cell functions. Even so, it takes hours to compute the cell division of just one bacterium! Read more in the NY Times article.
Being able to program a living thing is a breakthrough for biology and computer science. It reminds me of the mathematical and computational biology program at Harvey Mudd College, and how many exciting discovers are waiting to be made in these interdisciplinary areas.
It also reminds me of when I first became inspired about computational biology. I was reading The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, and many of the essays (some of which were written thirteen years ago, or more) talked about how biology was once a softer science, but with the introduction of computer models, biology has become more rigorous. Also, biology is becoming more important to understanding the world around us. It is often more mysterious to us than, say, physics or chemistry, which have been more intensely studied with the scientific method. Think about it: we humans have discovered the most elusive of subatomic particles, but we can only just now understand the life cycle of one teensy organism. Stanford’s research will be hugely important in the next years as computational biology improves.
I thought I was undecided about my college major. But this great piece of news has definitely nudged me closer to the Math-Comp-Bio side! It seems to me that the computational biology field is wide open. Mathematicians, computer scientists, and biologists alike have a ton of new research cut out for them.