A Blog Around The Clock

This week’s PLoS Computational Biology is chockful of interesting articles, including these:

Open Access: Taking Full Advantage of the Content:

This Journal and the Public Library of Science (PLoS) at large are standard bearers of the full potential offered through open access publication, but what of you, the reader? For most of you, open access may imply free access to read the journals, but nothing more. There is a far greater potential, but, up to now, little to point to that highlights its tangible benefits. We would argue that, as yet, the full promise of open access has not been realized. There are few persistent applications that collectively use the full on-line corpus, which for the biosciences at least is maintained in PubMed Central (http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/). In short, there are no “killer apps.” Since this readership, beyond any other, would seem to have the ability to change this situation at least in the biosciences, we are issuing a call to action.

Modeling the Effects of Cell Cycle M-phase Transcriptional Inhibition on Circadian Oscillation:

Circadian clock and cell cycle are two important biological processes that are essential for nearly all eukaryotes. The circadian clock governs day and night 24 h periodic molecular processes and physiological behaviors, while cell cycle controls cell division process. It has been widely observed that cell division does not occur randomly across day and night, but instead is normally confined to specific times during day and night. These observations suggest that cell cycle events are gated by the circadian clock. Regarding the biological benefit and rationale for this intriguing gating phenomena, it has been postulated that circadian gating helps to maintain genome stability by confining radiation-sensitive cell cycle phases to night. Bearing in mind the facts that global transcriptional inhibition occurs at cell division and transcriptional inhibition shifts circadian phases and periods, we postulate that confining cell division to specific circadian times benefits the circadian clock by removing or minimizing the side effects of cell division on the circadian clock. Our results based on computational simulation in this study show that periodic transcriptional inhibition can perturb the circadian clock by altering circadian phases and periods, and the magnitude of the perturbation is clearly circadian phase dependent. Specifically, transcriptional inhibition initiated at certain circadian phases induced minimal perturbation to the circadian clock. These results provide support for our postulation. Our postulation and results point to the importance of the effect of cell division on the circadian clock in the interaction between circadian and cell cycle and suggest that it should be considered together with other factors in the exploitation of circadian cell cycle interaction, especially the phenomena of circadian gating of cell cycle.

The Evolution of Robust Development and Homeostasis in Artificial Organisms:

During development, multicellular animals are shaped by cell proliferation, cell rearrangement, and cell death to generate an adult whose form is maintained over time. Disruption of this finely balanced state can have devastating consequences, including aging, psoriasis, and cancer. Typically, however, development is robust, so that animals achieve the same final form even when challenged by environmental damage such as wounding. To see how morphogenetic robustness arises, we have taken an in silico approach to evolve digital organisms that exhibit distinct phases of growth and homeostasis. During the homeostasis period, organisms were found to use a variety of strategies to maintain their form. Remarkably, however, all recovered from severe wounds, despite having evolved in the absence of selection pressure to do so. This ability to regenerate was most striking in an organism with a tissue-like architecture, where it was enhanced by a directional flux of cells that drives tissue turnover. This identifies a stratified architecture, like that seen in human skin and gut, as an evolutionarily accessible and robust form of tissue organisation, and suggests that wound-healing may be a general feature of evolved morphogenetic systems. Both may therefore contribute to homeostasis, wound-healing, and regeneration in real animals.

Shaping Embodied Neural Networks for Adaptive Goal-directed Behavior:

The ability of a brain to learn has been studied at various levels. However, a large gap exists between behavioral studies of learning and memory and studies of cellular plasticity. In particular, much remains unknown about how cellular plasticity scales to affect network population dynamics. In previous studies, we have addressed this by growing mammalian brain cells in culture and creating a long-term, two-way interface between a cultured network and a robot or an artificial animal. Behavior and learning could now be observed in concert with the detailed and long-term electrophysiology. In this work, we used modeling/simulation of living cortical cultures to investigate the network’s capability to learn goal-directed behavior. A biologically inspired simulated network was used to determine an effective closed-loop training algorithm, and the system successfully exhibited multi-task goal-directed adaptive behavior. The results suggest that even though lacking the characteristic layered structure of a brain, the network still could be functionally shaped and showed meaningful behavior. Knowledge gained from working with such closed-loop systems could influence the design of future artificial neural networks, more effective neuroprosthetics, and even the use of living networks themselves as a biologically based control system.

The Dynamics of Human Body Weight Change:

Understanding the dynamics of human body weight change has important consequences for conditions such as obesity, starvation, and wasting syndromes. Changes of body weight are known to result from imbalances between the energy derived from food and the energy expended to maintain life and perform physical work. However, quantifying this relationship has proved difficult, in part because the body is composed of multiple components and weight change results from alterations of body composition (i.e., fat versus lean mass). Here, we show that mathematical modeling can provide a general description of how body weight will change over time by tracking the flux balances of the macronutrients fat, protein, and carbohydrates. For a fixed food intake rate and physical activity level, the body weight and composition will approach steady state. However, the steady state can correspond to a unique body weight or a continuum of body weights that are all consistent with the same food intake and energy expenditure rates. Interestingly, existing experimental data on human body weight dynamics cannot distinguish between these two possibilities. We propose experiments that could resolve this issue and use computer simulations to demonstrate how such experiments could be performed.