Heart of Biology
“The great book of nature can be read only by those who know the language in which it was written. And this language is mathematics.”
Eric Lander, Ph.D., director of the Broad Institute, also takes a highly mathematical approach to investigating biology. “Mathematics is now at the heart of biology,” he states, and his approach is helping pioneer new ways to understand the basis of disease.
In his view, mathematics has extraordinarily expanded our ability to see patterns and connections. “It seems inconceivable,” he emphasizes, “that we could analyze the trillions of data points that we now collect without mathematics.”
The trillions of data points he and his colleagues at Broad are developing come from: mapping and sequencing human, and other genomes; understanding the functional elements encoded in genomes through comparative analysis; understanding the genetic variation in the human population and its relationship to disease susceptibility; understanding the distinctive cellular signatures of diseases and of response to drugs; and understanding the mutations underlying cancer.
“Using mathematics,” according to Dr. Lander, “we can compare the differences across species to show what evolution has conserved and not conserved. We can compare in an unbiased way the similarities and differences among tumors that do and do not respond to a drug. We can do discovery science by taking large datasets and by comparing information; and we can uncover a range of surprising hypotheses from the data that we never would have guessed.”
Among the surprising discoveries is the fact that “the majority of the functional sequences in the human genome encode regulatory elements that we had been completely blind to. They emerge from cross-species comparisons.” In addition, these discoveries have revealed that thousands of genes don’t code for proteins.
For Dr. Lander, the ultimate goal is for sequencing to become so simple and inexpensive that it can be routinely deployed as a general-purpose tool throughout biomedicine.
To fulfill this potential, the cost of whole-genome sequencing will need eventually to approach a few hundred U.S. dollars.
“With new approaches under development and market-based competition,” he says, “these goals may be feasible within the next decade.”
Mathematics, with the help of increasingly fast, powerful, and cost-effective technologies is providing us with an ability to see what have up to now been hidden patterns of life. These mathematical insights provide powerful new approaches for understanding disease mechanisms, pioneering new diagnostics techniques, and rethinking how drug targets should be chosen.
Today’s use of Darwin’s “new sense” is laying the foundation for addressing in ways never before possible many of the serious societal problems involving biologically based systems.