Modular design is a familiar concept in many engineered systems, from computer software to automobiles. Now an interdisciplinary team of scientists, centered around Harvard University’s Bauer Center for Genomics Research and supported by a five-year, $15 million grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, is asking whether biological systems are also modular, at the molecular and cellular levels.
The field of molecular biology has yielded powerful new understanding by reducing biology to the behavior of individual molecules. The newer field of genomics yields a more integrated, genome-scale view of biology. Yet genomics can overwhelm investigators with the volume of data that can be collected and the complexity of the interactions that are revealed.
The Bauer Center group will combine the strengths of these two fields by focusing on the collections of genes or proteins that work together to carry out particular biological functions – ranging from the mating of yeast cells to social behavior in cichlid fish. The group will test the hypothesis that such collections behave as discrete “functional modules,” each of which performs a specific function essential to an organism’s survival and reproduction. Furthermore, the researchers propose, these modules will be shown to reflect general “design principles” shaped by evolution – principles that may provide a theoretical foundation for the study of organization in biology.
Support for this ambitious project comes from a grant awarded this month by NIGMS, in the amount of $3 million for the first year. Total funding over five years is expected to be approximately $15 million. The project is part of an NIGMS initiative to establish Centers of Excellence in Complex Biomedical Systems Research, the first two of which were announced last year. In keeping with the aims of this initiative, the Bauer Center group comprises scientists from many disciplines who will combine theory, computation and modeling with experimental approaches to unravel the complexity of living systems.
William C. Kirby, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, welcomed the Center of Excellence grant, saying, “This grant from NIH is gratifying not only in its generosity, but in its recognition of the particular merits and promise of the Bauer Center. That this hive of minds, creatively connected across the disciplines, can apply itself to the critical questions in biomedical research today, is encouraging for our future and a mark of our institutional commitment to scientific research more broadly.”
The Bauer Center is itself an experiment in a new way of organizing research in the life sciences. Part of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, but not belonging to any department, the center is home to a group of 10 fellows – young, independent scientists who run their own small research groups but also collaborate extensively with one another, and with scientists in neighboring departments. The center is dedicated to the idea that young scientists in close proximity to one another, relieved of teaching and administrative duties, and committed to interdisciplinary research, can achieve together what none of them could have accomplished separately.
The new Center of Excellence will extend beyond the walls of the Bauer Center to involve collaborators at a variety of Harvard departments, the Medical School, and elsewhere. The research program will comprise eight interacting projects, including: applying computational approaches to identify and describe modules from experimental data; theoretical analysis of selected modules to try to discover rules underlying their operation; and various experimental approaches to dissecting modules, evolving them in the laboratory, and studying their integration to control complex behaviors.