Bigger Biology Tackled Through Keyboards

Solving crucial biological problems these days can involve trying to figure out huge arrays of individual activities on vastly different scales and timelines, from the rapid genetic mutations of certain viruses to the long-term impact of species extinctions on global ecological processes.

Fortunately, a relatively new field of science known as computational biology is coming of age, according to a review paper in the Jan. 17 issue of the weekly journal Science by researchers from the University of California, Davis, and other universities.

"Important biological issues can and need to be understood through computational biology," says co-author Alan Hastings, chair of the UC Davis environmental studies division. "Dynamic models are an essential tool for understanding complex biological systems."

Written by four of the most noted scientists in the field, the paper reviews the role of powerful computational tools in studying ecology, genetics and evolution, infectious diseases, and immunology and virology.

"Math and computation are playing greater and greater roles in addressing contemporary biological problems," says Simon Levin, director of the Princeton University Environmental Institute and first author of the paper. "There's been continuous progress over the last 25 years; but, like doing a crossword puzzle, it's really hard to make progress in the beginning and then at a certain point it goes very fast."

Computational biology is at that point, the authors agree. Dazzling new high-speed computational technology, enormous and growing sets of data, and more sophisticated approaches to problem solving are now converging.

Promising advances in computational techniques allow researchers to begin to account for the fact that neighboring individuals might behave differently toward each other than distant individuals -- whether these are trees competing for ligh

Contact: Carol Cruzan Morton
University of California - Davis

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