UC Scientists Receive Millions To Study Yeast

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UC Berkeley researchers were awarded $15.5 million to research communication within living cells and develop a computer model of the findings.

The National Institute of Health's National Human Genome Research Institute provided the grant for the project, which will be led by the Molecular Sciences Institute.

Dubbed the Alpha Project, the research will span several universities and incorporate people from a variety of fields. Researchers believe they will benefit from combining the amorphous field of biology with structured disciplines like mathematics and physics.

"We live in an era in which biology has very big problems to solve," said Roger Brent, scientific director and president of the Molecular Sciences Institute. "We need to draw on people and ideas in different disciplines. The Alpha Project will bring waves of immigrants from math, computer science, and physics (into biology)."

Researchers plan to track and define every chemical reaction in baker's yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Scientists will be able to predict the yeast's reaction to a stimulus by mapping the signaling pathway in a computer model.

"The object of the whole study is to find computation approaches and apply areas where experimental intervention is much more difficult," said Jeremy Thorner, consultant for the Molecular Sciences Institute and professor in the Molecular and Cell Biology Department at UC Berkeley.

Julie Leary, adjunct professor of chemistry and director of UC Berkeley's Mass Spectrometry Research Laboratories, is a principal member in the project and will do the opening research.

Leary works with protein mass spectrometry, which measures the mass of molecules within pathways and their rates of change as they react with one another, giving insight into the flow of information within a cell. Her measurements of molecules and their reactions are essential quantitatively to making the computer model.

The project members chose yeast as its subject because it has one of the best understood signal pathways of any organism. Thorner is also one of the world's experts on this particular pathway.

"(By using yeast), there'll be less to figure out and fewer holes to plug," Thorner said.

Another advantage in using yeast is that it contains components and "clear-cut relatives" found in larger organisms, such as human beings.

Once the project is finished, the computer model will enable scientists to use it as a design tool to engineer biological systems, such as plants that fight pollution by absorbing increased carbon dioxide. Also, this technology could be used to improve the administration and creation of pharmaceutical drugs.

"I think many things they're doing is highly worthwhile, though it may take all five years to see success," Thorner said. "They're entering unchartered waters."


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