Bigger Biology Tackled Through Keyboards

t or individuals spreading disease.

For example, the evolution of altruism has long intrigued biologists. Why would an organism intent on spreading its genes on to the next generation risk anything by helping another organism. Well, computational work has revealed that individuals are more likely to help neighbors than random strangers they expect never to see again and that this can help explain how altruism has evolved.

"It's a strategy of, if you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours," Hastings said. Different strategies for interacting (cooperating for mutual gain or competing for advantage) can be put into mathematical terms and run through a computer to determine the results of each strategy over time.

Computational biologists begin to understand these kinds of problems by building a mathematical model. Like an architect's blueprint, such models aim to capture only the essential elements of a complicated phenomenon in a form that can be manipulated, investigated and used as an experimental tool itself.

"The art of modeling is knowing what to leave out," said Hastings, who recently helped bring to campus a research training grant in nonlinear dynamics in biology from the National Science Foundation. UC Davis is considered among the world's leading campuses in quantitatively oriented biology.

Some of the general challenges faced by computational biologists include dealing with phenomena on different scales of time, space and organizational complexity. "If you put a pot on the stove, you just want to know when it will boil. You don't care about every molecule inside," Levin said. "But if you want to build physical theory, you may begin at the scale of molecules colliding."

So it is with biological modeling in epidemiology, ecology and immunology. Scientists want to understand the behavior of the entire system, which is mediated by things happening on smaller and larger scales.

When using models, it's i

Contact: Carol Cruzan Morton
University of California - Davis

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