Applying Math to Biology

Source: Quanta, Jan 2016

The research hints at an unstudied language of DNA topology that could direct a host of cellular processes. “It’s intriguing that DNA behaves this way, that topology matters in living organisms,” said Craig Benham, a mathematical biologist at the University of California, Davis. “I think that was a surprise to many biologists.”

Though scientists already knew bits and pieces of how supercoiled DNA functions, the combination of microscopy and modeling in the new paper helps to create a more precise picture. “For a large part of the biological community, seeing is believing,” saidStephen Levene, a biophysicist and bioengineer at the University of Texas, Dallas, who was not involved in the study. “You can show math models, but unless you have some convincing structural data, it’s hard to get people to appreciate what’s going on.”

Mathematicians and physicists have long been intrigued by supercoiled DNA and the role that DNA topology plays in the cell. According to Sumners, the field is ripe for exploitation with new mathematical approaches. “Mother nature clearly has a message here,” Sumners said. “The question is how to interpret it.”


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