Venter, Stanford build first computer model of complete organism

Computational biology has taken another big leap. The J. Craig Venter Institute and Stanford University have pieced together the first software model of an entire organism, using massive amounts of data and computing power to simulate life processes of the tiny being. And the group foresees the construction of digital models of more complex organisms as technology and computing infrastructure allow.

With detailed computer models of creatures, scientists have the chance to view cellular and molecular functions unlike what can be seen under a microscope or other experiments involving the real thing, according to researchers. "Comprehensive computer models of entire cells have the potential to advance our understanding of cellular function and, ultimately, to inform new approaches for the diagnosis and treatment of disease," James Anderson, director of the NIH Division of Program Coordination, Planning and Strategic Initiatives, said in a statement.

Leave it to J. Craig Venter, the genomics and synthetic biology pioneer, to find ways to pull off huge feats in life sciences. His group and Stanford researchers decided to start small with their first computer model organism, which is a sexually transmitted parasite that hangs out around the genitals and in the respiratory system. The major undertaking was detailed in the journal Cell. Yet the computer-simulated version of the 525-gene creature--called Mycoplasma genitalium--runs on 128 computers, The New York Times reported, and larger and more complex organisms would gobble up many times more computing power.

The complete organism model follows many previous computer-simulated models of individual processes such as metabolism in living organisms, including humans. A great thing about the complete organism models is the ability to look at how many genes and processes in living things interact, as many researchers are warming up to the idea that integrating massive amounts and different types of biological could yield breakthroughs in treating complicated illnesses such as Alzheimer's and cancer.

"You read in the paper just about every week, 'Cancer gene discovered' or 'Alzheimer gene discovered,'" said the leader of the new research, Markus W. Covert, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford, as quoted by the Times. "A lot of the public wonders, 'Why haven't we cured all these things?' The answer, of course, is that cancer is not a one-gene problem; it's a many-thousands-of-factors problem."

- here's the release
- see the item from Cell
- and the NYT's piece

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