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Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology

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Cellular Decision Making Focus of New IGB Theme

If a cell is damaged, does it repair itself or decide to self-destruct? And just how does the cell make that decision? The Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has announced the formation of a new research theme, Cellular Decision Making in Cancer, to look at those kinds of questions. The new theme will be led by Taekjip Ha, professor of physics and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, and will “develop a multi-scale narrative of how single-molecule events integrate protein networks to determine cell fate,” says Ha.

“These are all very important processes,” says Ha, of cellular decision-making. “In the case of a viral infection, for example, if the cell makes a wrong decision and thinks there is an infection when there is not, you can end up with an autoimmune disease.”

“The CDMC theme has unique tools at its disposal to help unravel both the complexities of individual cells and of larger systems using an approach different from others interested in the same questions. This work holds promise for personalized medicine and other healthcare advances,” says Harris Lewin, director of the IGB.

Because cancer in particular is the result of cell decision-making run amok, the theme members will focus on that disease. However, because cellular decision making is involved in an array of other activities, the theme will also investigate such activities as cell maintenance, replication, repair, recombination, programmed cell death—apoptosis — as well as the decision by a stem cell to differentiate into a specific type of tissue or a cell’s response to a viral infection, when it will crank up the production of antiviral proteins.

The theme capitalizes on advances over the last few years in single molecule measurements, chemical biology, and computational genomics, which has resulted in techniques unique to IGB and the University. Those tools include FISH, a fluorescent labeling technique in situ (i.e. in vivo) that can image individual mRNA molecule in a single cell, and SiMPull, for “single molecule pull down,” a way to isolate and analyze single protein complexes directly from cell extracts. Currently SiMPull works in 30 minutes with a group of 10 cells and shortly, Ha predicts, it will succeed at the single cell level. Western Blots, the current technique for analysing proteins, takes 5,000 cells, large quantities of reagents and antibodies and many hours to get results.

Because SiMPull can achieve better resolution in less time using fewer resources, Ha believes that the technique will “accelerate the rate of biological discovery.”

The theme includes Paul Hergenrother, a professor of chemistry; Yann Chemla, a professor of physics; Nathan Price, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering who is a systems biologist; and Sua Myong, Jian Ma and Cheng Zhong, all of whom are bioengineering professors.

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