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UCI awarded $14.5 million to support systems biology center


UC Irvine has been awarded $14.5 million over five years to support the Center for Complex Biological Systems in which biologists, mathematicians, physicists, engineers and computer scientists collaborate to study why the human body and other organisms work the way they do.

A multidisciplinary team of 20 scientists will attempt to answer questions such as: Why do between 4 and 8 percent of all babies born have birth defects? When a wound heals, how does the body produce just the right number of cells to repair it? Why do most drugs have side effects?

“Systems biology asks questions about why things are constructed the way they are, as opposed to simply how they work,” said Dr. Arthur Lander, director of the new center and chair of the Department of Developmental and Cell Biology at UCI. “Focusing on the design principles of large-scale systems is really a cultural change in the way scientists view and conduct biological and biomedical research.”

The UCI center is being funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It will be the only one of its kind in California. Eight other centers dedicated to systems biology nationwide have been funded by NIGMS, including at Duke, Princeton, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

UCI will focus on spatial dynamics, or how biological systems control what happens not just over time, but over space. For example, the formation of a heart requires cells of different types to be produced in precise locations to create chambers and valves. Fighting off infection requires immune cells to migrate toward faint chemical trails. Repairing an injury requires cells to “sense” the size and shape of structures that need replacing.

In researching such problems, the center will take advantage of UCI’s considerable strengths in computation, applied mathematics and optical biology, in which microscopes, lasers and fluorescence are used to interrogate cells and tissues.

“The team led by Dr. Lander will use methods that draw from mathematics, computer science and experimental biology to understand the complex system by which interacting signals give rise to biological form, such as the development of an embryo,” said James Anderson, the NIH program director for UCI’s center. “Through an array of research and training activities, the Center for Systems Biology will be a catalyst for important advances benefiting the entire scientific community.”

Systems biology is seen by many as a paradigm shift, akin to Darwin’s theory of evolution or the emergence of molecular biology in the 1950s, Lander says. For the past 50 years, biologists have understandably focused on individual genes, proteins and DNA – identifying the functions of molecules and cataloguing human, animal and plant genomes. This effort left comparatively little time for understanding such components in the context of the systems to which they belong and the jobs those systems perform. Now, with cataloguing nearing completion, biologists are finding that computers, high-level mathematics and engineering principles are necessary to make sense of the massive amounts of data that have been generated.

UCI has focused on systems biology for several years. In 2000, UCI proposed a California Institute of Systems Biology in response to the governor’s call for Institutes for Science and Innovation. The proposal, while not funded, led to the development of the UCI Institute for Genomics and Bioinformatics. This institute focuses on the connection between biology and computer science, and it is the home of a major NIH-sponsored doctoral training grant.

In 2001, UCI created the Center for Complex Biological Systems, which has helped garner NIH funding to support several teams of biologists and mathematicians. This center also developed a new doctoral program in mathematical and computational biology in which students with backgrounds ranging from math, physics, chemistry, engineering, computer science and biology can train in systems biology. The first class of students has been admitted for fall 2007.

This year, UCI also will sponsor the Eighth International Conference on Systems Biology in Long Beach. This meeting is the oldest and most prestigious in the world dedicated to systems biology.

About the University of California, Irvine: The University of California, Irvine is a top-ranked university dedicated to research, scholarship and community service. Founded in 1965, UCI is among the fastest-growing University of California campuses, with more than 25,000 undergraduate and graduate students and about 1,800 faculty members. The second-largest employer in dynamic Orange County, UCI contributes an annual economic impact of $3.7 billion. For more UCI news, visit

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