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2008.02.20 > For Immediate Release
contact: Wendy Townley - University Relations
phone: 402.554.2762 - email: wtownley@mail.unomaha.edu

New Cell Behaviors Discovered by UNO Research Team

Omaha - The Mathematical Biology Research Group at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) has found new evidence that individual cells have chemical circuits that allow them to process information from their environment.

The finding, published in the Feb. 12 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, shows that the information processing capacity results in decision-making ability at the cellular level -- a molecular “brain” for cells.

The results were obtained from the mathematical analysis of a new, large-scale model of the chemical pathways. The model, created by the research group, is unique in that it is based completely on the logic of the chemical interactions that make up the system.

Much like humans encounter a flood of sensory information from their environment that must be processed to allow rational decisions to be made, cells receive large amounts of information from their environments in the form of chemical cues.

These cues are detected by cells though specific chemical receptors on their surfaces, and the numerous types of receptors form the equivalent of a cellular sensory system.

It has recently been speculated that the astonishingly complex chemical networks inside the cell that are associated with these cell surface receptors might be involved in some sort of information processing, but until now the only evidence came from mostly descriptive studies of the complex structure of these networks.

The UNO group moved beyond description of the structure and was able to determine the complete logic of the system. In order to assess how the logic of the interactions resulted cellular action, a novel cellular simulation computer program was developed by the group that puts the cellular logic into motion.

As a result, the group was able to observe and analyze how the chemical networks reacted to tens of thousands of possible cellular environments. The mathematical analysis of the results revealed that cells are able to classify different environments based on their similarities and make rational decisions as to cellular actions required in those environments.

Full understanding of the complex chemical networks in cells is critical as a number of human diseases, most notably cancer, result from malfunctions in the activities of individual chemicals that make up the networks.

The Mathematical Biology Research Group at UNO is a highly collaborative group of mathematicians and cell biologists. The members of the group that made the new discovery include John Konvalina and Jack Heidel, both mathematicians, and Jim Rogers a cell biologist. The computer software was developed by Tomas Helikar, a graduate student in Bioinformatics at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and a member of the group.

The project was funded by a three-year, nearly $600,000 grant to the research group from the National Institutes of Health.

For more information, call (402) 554-2762.

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