July 18, 2019 | 85° F

U. biophysicists hope to change biology field

Three biophysicists at the Rutgers University BioMaPS Institute for Quantitative Biology are changing the field of modern biology from guesswork into a more theoretical and computational science.

Alexandre Morozov, George Locke and Michael Manhart work at the Hill Center on Busch campus and are attempting to change the way biologists approach the field.

“There’s lots of data … but there’s not any good theoretical understanding of [it],” said Manhart, a fourth-year Ph.D candidate in the Department of Physics studying molecular evolution.

He said there are not enough theories, models and computational techniques that are up to speed to address the excess of data.

“Being able to do something with this excess of data and being able to extract meaning from it is a really big undertaking unto itself that really requires huge advancements in theory,” Manhart said.

Morozov, an associate professor in the Department of Physics, said they are moving away from the old notion of biology, which has always been an experimental science where scientists look at phenomenon and try to classify it.

 “We have started putting numbers on it in hopes of it becoming more like physics in the 21st century,” Morozov said.

He said he wants it to be more precise and controlled.

“It’s an interesting area where physics and biology come together,” he said.

Morozov said he, along with Manhart and Locke, a Ph.D student in the Department of Physics, tried to merge ideas of polymer physics and DNA processing, focusing on the way proteins and DNA interact.

“It needs to survive in a very complex and unpredictable environment. That’s why it’s a very interesting area. There’s a huge community – hundreds of researchers in physics and biology working on this area,” Morozov said.

They rely on an extensive network of collaborators worldwide, Locke said. This community is responsible for the interpretation of plentiful data made possible by frequently advancing technologies.

“This revolution is caused by availability and continued improvements in high-throughput sequencing,” Morozov said.

High-throughput sequencing highlights where one can find specific nucleosomes, or balls of proteins and DNA, along the chain of a chromosome, Locke said.

Morozov said before this technology surfaced, scientists would have to work with nucleosomes one by one. It is still fairly costly, but the price goes down each week.

Locke said the quantitative insight would allow them to precisely observe chromatin behavior better.

“We want biology to be more predictable. Biology will never be physics, we don’t want to kick the biologists out or anything,” Locke said.

Manhart said science is about figuring out what is important and what is not important. Biological systems are not too complicated to keep track of, he said.

“You can extract some general principles from this data, and if you back it up with experimental insight, you can do the same types of things that have been done in physics for the last hundreds of years,” Manhart said.

Manhart said evolution is the key to understanding the functions of chromatin.

“The chromatin functions and structures that exist today have emerged over millions of years. How they will change in the future is understood, in principle at least, by the ideas of evolution,” Manhart said.

He said his research partly tries to connect evolution to specific systems and understanding how that impacts chromatin and gene regulation and their systems.

“People thought that once they sequence the human genome, they would see cancer and autism and everything else. That’s the thing — there’s no cancer gene, there’s no autism gene. Those are phenomenon that emerge from very complicated interactions of many genes,” Manhart said.

Morozov said starting small is the exciting part of this process.

“Quantitative biology is a new field. It’s at its infancy. For students to get involved now is to get on the ground floor. It’s a very exciting opportunity, and I’m really excited to be a part of it myself,” Locke said.

By Andrew Rodriguez

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