Biological Switches and Clocks

in partnership with the Burroughs Wellcome Fund

Coordinators: Reka Z. Albert, Albert Goldbeter, Peter Ruoff, Jill Sible, John J. Tyson

The living cell receives signals from its environment and from its own internal state, processes the information, and initiates appropriate responses in terms of changes in gene expression (differentiation), cell movement, and cell growth or death. Like a digital computer, information processing within cells is carried out by a complex network of switches and oscillators, but, instead of being fabricated from silicon transistors and quartz crystals, the cell’s computer is an evolved network of interacting genes and proteins. In the same way that computer design was made possible by a sophisticated theory of electronic circuitry, a basic understanding of cellular regulatory mechanisms will require a relevant theory of biomolecular circuitry. Although the ‘engineering mindset’ is sorely needed to make sense of the cell’s circuitry, the squishy, sloppy, massively parallel, analog nature of biochemistry is so different from the solid-state, precise, sequential, digital nature of computers that the mathematical tools and intellectual biases of the solid-state physicist/electrical engineer are not likely to be very useful in unraveling the molecular logic of cell physiology. New modeling paradigms and software tools are evolving to meet the challenges of the new ‘systems biology’ of the living cell.

The goal of this six-week workshop is to bring together a diverse group of theorists and experimentalists who share common interests in developing and applying new ways to understand the molecular mechanisms—the switches and clocks—that control the physiological properties of living organisms. Success of the workshop will depend on a serious and prolonged conversation between

  • Cell biologists, molecular biologists, biochemists and geneticists who value a quantitative approach to biology, and
  • Mathematical biologists, biophysicists, computational scientists and engineers who value models and methods that are realistic, accurate, insightful and predictive.

The central topics of the workshop will include deterministic and stochastic modeling of circadian rhythms, signaling networks, and the cell division cycle. Participants will share the latest experimental results in molecular genetics and cell biology and the most powerful theoretical tools of modeling, simulation and analysis. The program—designed to facilitate collaboration—will include seminars, informal working groups, and tutorials. The number of long-term participants in the workshop is limited to about 20, and they will be carefully selected to maximize the potential for fruitful collaborations.