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Professor highlights math's value in biological research

By Stephanie Callimanis
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday Apr. 9, 2002

Speech focuses on challenges in calculating gene interaction

When scientists announced in June 2000 that they had completely mapped the human genome, the world received a bundle of information on the more than 35,000 genes that make up a human.

Deciphering exactly what those genes do and organizing them into usable bits is now in the hands of biologists, physicists, computer scientists and mathematics, a University of Arizona professor said in a speech yesterday as part of Math Awareness Week.

"This task of dealing with this enormous amount of information opens up a whole set of opportunities for trying to analyze this information globally," said molecular and cellular biology professor Sam Ward.

"You can locate these genes and they encode some protein, but if someone hasn't studied that more intensely, you don't have any idea what it might do unless it is similar to some other protein whose function you know," he said.

The analysis of these large amounts of genes has become a group effort among different scientific disciplines, as it has been at key points of scientific research in the past.

The very beginnings of genetic research were marked by a combination of disciplines; the structure of DNA was first discovered in 1953 by biologist James Watson and former physicist Francis Crick.

"One of the things that physicists brought to biology was the idea that if you want to study a biological problem, you want to find the simplest example," Ward said. This idea is the reason behind the large use of viruses for genetic research, because they are among the simplest organisms with genetic material.

Now, with the sequencing of the human genome, scientists are "entering into a completely new world of biology," Ward said. There will be "information available for a large number of organisms. How you understand and utilize this genomic information to understand biological questions" will be affected by a combination of sciences, he said.

"We have to learn to think a different way about this. It's a challenge both in mathematics and computation to be able to compare them (the 35,000 genes) to one another and determine how they interact," he said.

Much of this work is being done here at UA, and this year's Math Awareness Week, themed "Mathematics and the Genome," will highlight the university's role.

"We're pretty lucky here because UA happens to be a real hotbed of genetics and genomics," mathematics professor Bruce Bayly said.

Math Awareness Week, put on by the UA math department, coincides with National Math Awareness Month.

"Every year, there's a different theme about mathematics and its relationship to the real world in some ways," Bayly said.

Events for this week include activities, exhibits and talks, and all are free and open to the public.


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