August 2008 Archives

Professor Hans Westerhoff's hypothesis of fragility in biological networks is gradually picking up steam. Science News covered it today and I described it as part of a feature on systems biology at the start of the month for the IET's Engineering & Technology.

Westerhoff's approach is deceptively simple. If you look at all the chemical kinetics model for a cell, you can calculate how robust each reaction by analysing the change in production of a target compound based on how much you reduce the amount of enzyme that supports that step. If you cut enzyme concentration by 1 per cent and the production of chemical barely budges, it's robust.

There is no principle of conservation of robustness in a cell: some simply are better at producing material than others. However, if you invert the numbers and call them the fragility of the step, they always add up to one. In a sense, fragility is always conserved. That provides drug designers with a new set of non-obvious targets. In cancers, for example, many drugs try to hit the effects of an oncogene. But the pathways controlled by those genes are often strengthened in a cancer, so they are actually poor targets. Better to look at a precursor that may have a weak link.

The Associated Press of Pakistan reported on a speech made by ambassador Masood Khan to a meeting of experts on the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) in Geneva in which he said states need to each have their own codes of behaviour for bioengineering research rather than everyone signing up to an all-encompassing international treaty:

"He added that codes of conduct should not only focus on existing tangible and intangible technologies but fast developing disciplines such as synthetic biology and genomic technology."

According to Khan, the country has a three-tier monitoring system that comprises the National Biosafety Committee (NBC), the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) and the Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC). Between them, these groups oversee laboratory work, field trials, commercial release, import, export, sale and purchase of GMOs and their products.

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