Imagine you are confronted one day by a pile of hundreds of tiny metal gears, springs, screws and such. Could you tell by looking at that pile what could be assembled from it? Now imagine that different people across the planet have bits of information on putting these parts together. Someone from Beijing can tell you that gear A is attached to spring B and someone from Vancouver can tell you that spring B connects to flywheel C. You somehow manage to collect this information in one place to create a plan and put the parts together accordingly. Surprisingly, what you have put together turns out to be an intricate Swiss watch with a mechanism that can be wound up and set in motion to tell time.
Now imagine that you are given a list of parts for a person and want to know how an estimated 100 trillion cells in the human body function over a lifetime. The types of things that are in the human parts list include biomolecules like DNA, RNA, proteins and other molecules (such as vitamins, fats and sugars). We are at this stage right now in biology. The human genome project has provided us with a large number of parts, but we don’t know how all the parts fit together, how the biomolecules interact.
Finding and understanding this information is important, as biomolecules interact inside us and arrange themselves into intricate networks and pathways that control all aspects of a cell’s function. Metabolic pathways are like assembly lines that, for instance, make new parts so the cell can grow. Signal transduction pathways are like electrical networks that control the clockwork of the cell, for instance to make sure it doesn’t grow too fast, as in cancer. Understanding the cell on the level of biomolecular interactions will allow us to further understand how we work, how diseases arise and how to develop more effective cures.
Thanks to more sensitive and robust technologies, such as mass spectrometry, scientists around the world are finding out, at an increasing rate, what the parts of the cell do and how they fit together. The Bader lab uses computers to analyze the network of molecules interacting inside the cell and tries to decipher the role of cellular pathway failures in disease. This is supported by designing and building computer systems to collect and analyze biomolecular interaction network and pathway information.
For more background, watch this 2002 Discovery Channel show about proteomics. (playable in Windows Media Player)