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Tying together math and macromolecules.

Tying together math and macromolecules

Writhing numbers, tangle calculus, knot invariants and flexible graphs. These mathematical terms would appear to have little to do with molecular biology. Nevertheless, over the last few years, a fruitful collaboration has sprung up between a few mathematicians interested in topology, especially knot theory, and some molecular biologists struggling to understand the geometry and behavior of DNA molecules (SN: 5/21/88, p.328). Now the National Science Foundation is about to fund a program at the University of California, Berkeley, designed to help mathematicians and biologists develop mathematical tools and a common language for solving problems in molecular biology.

"The informal collaborations worked so well that we thought there were a lot of other people out there who could also benefit," says Berkeley molecular biologist Nicholas R. Cozzarelli, who directs the new program. In the first year, six mathematicians and four biologists will participate in the program, investigating topics such as recognizing patterns in protein sequences, developing new techniques for genetic mapping, tracking energy flows as DNA molecules untangle and shift in position, and analyzing enzyme actions. The program will receive $2 million over the next five years, with the cost shared between the National Science Foundation's mathematics and biology divisions. It includes plans for sponsoring a number of meetings involving both biologists and mathematicians to assess and propagate research results and to define new problems worthy of investigation. The program will also provide direct support for some interdisciplinary research and for a number of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

"We're not really after converting mathematicians to become biologists or biologists to become mathematicians," Cozzarelli says. "What we're after is facilitating collaboration -- so that there is a constant interplay between mathematics and biology, a give-and-take between theory and experiment." The idea is to exploit the mathematics to interpret and suggest experiments and to use experiment and biological questions to suggest areas for mathematical research.
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Title Annotation:mathematical tools for molecular biology
Publication:Science News
Date:Nov 12, 1988
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