From Network to System

New Max Planck Partner Institute in Shanghai focuses on research into biological networks

June 22, 2005

The Max Planck Society and the Chinese Academy of Sciences have now officially established a "Partner Institute for Computational and Theoretical Biology" in Shanghai. The MPS Founding Director of the new Institute is mathematics professor Andreas Dress, formerly of the University of Bielefeld and the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the Sciences. The Chinese Co-Director is population geneticist Prof. Li Jin, from the University of Cincinnati/College of Medicine, USA, who is also a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai. Prof. Dress will head the Department of Combinatorial Geometry, which will focus its studies on network interaction between proteins and metabolic products in healthy and diseased cells. Prof. Li Jin’s Department of Genetics and Bioinformatics, on the other hand, aims to examine the molecular evolution of human populations and to identify the genetic basis of complex human diseases. The Partner Institute will work closely with experimental and biomathematics research institutes in China and Germany, as well as in other countries. The foundation ceremony was held in Shanghai on May 25, 2005.

"Nothing is more practical than a good theory." To some extent, this quote from Ludwig Boltzmann is the new Institute’s guiding theme since, more and more, modern biology is being permeated by an information-based view of understanding life processes. In one cell alone, tens of thousands of molecules at different locations act simultaneously in various concentrations. How does this "molecular white noise" yield information? How does it generate signals or receive, suppress or transmit signals from the environment? How does this manifold collection of molecules result in life?

To find answers to such questions, scientists today are trying to understand these life processes as a whole - as a system. However, this endeavor generates ever-increasing quantities of data that need to be analyzed in order to uncover new findings about an organism. This is where the new theoretical and mathematical approaches and computer modeling of such systems come in.

Understanding complex processes in biomolecular networks and cell systems through combinatorial geometry methods is currently of great interest. "Networks are snapshots of complex systems, and systems are made up of networks in action," says Prof. Andreas Dress, one of the Institute directors. Only by ascertaining the cellular activity in detail can a deeper understanding of the extremely complex processes in the human organism be achieved and, ultimately, new drugs developed. In particular, Dress and his group will focus on protein and metabolism networks in both healthy and cancerous cells.

Networks also play a key role at the level of the entire organism - and particularly in how our genetic material works. Prof. Li Jin, the second Director at the Partner Institute, focuses in particular on the variability of the human genome between individuals, which accounts for just 0.1 percent of our genetic material. What distinguishes humans from one another is determined by minute differences in the DNA sequence, the single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). A set of simultaneously inherited SNPs in one region of the genome is referred to as a "haplotype". Studying them helps, on the one hand, to answer questions about the origin, relationship, history, structure and migration pattern of human populations (molecular anthropology). On the other hand, some gene variants, or the proteins encoded by them, are linked to certain diseases. Finding the reasons behind this will help bring us closer to the biological roots of widespread diseases and facilitate the development of appropriate drugs. In addition, attempts are being made to find gene variants that are responsible for individual response to active agents, or for the occurrence of side effects (pharmacogenomics).

Institute Directors
Prof. Andreas Dress (born in 1938) studied mathematics in Berlin, Tübingen and Kiel, earned his doctorate in 1962 and obtained his postdoctoral lecture qualification in 1965. He was a member of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, USA for many years, and has been a professor of mathematics at the University of Bielefeld since 1969. Dress was a visiting scientist at many renowned universities and research institutes worldwide and is co-editor of seven international professional journals. In addition, Dress has been a visiting scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the Sciences in Leipzig since 2003. His current research interests include phylogenetic combinatorics, molecular evolution and the use of topological methods in proteomics and computational chemistry.

Prof. Li Jin (born in 1963) studied genetics at Fudan University in Shanghai, obtained his doctorate in biomedical science/genetics at the University of Texas in Houston, USA in 1994, and was a post doc fellow in the medical genetics program at Stanford University School of Medicine (under Prof. L.L. Cavalli-Sforza) until 1996. Prof. Jin has been a full professor at the University of Cincinnati, USA since 2001, and Director of the Center for Anthropological Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, China. In addition, Prof. Lin acted as a consultant to a number of American biotechnology companies. He is co-editor of several international professional journals. His main fields of work are human and medical genetics, population genetics and genetic anthropology, as well as genomics and bioinformatics.

Institute Organization
The Partner Institute will comprise three departments and several junior research groups, and will be legally and administratively integrated into the campus of the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences (SIBS) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). At the same time, it will exhibit key structural features of a Max Planck Institute - especially with a view to ensuring the high quality of the scientific work. Another central task for the Institute will be the interdisciplinary training of junior scientists in the field of biomathematics.

During the five-year construction phase, the Chinese Academy of Sciences will assume two-thirds of the required costs. One-third, or a total of 2.5 million euros, will be provided by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research from its project promotion fund. Through research in the field of theoretical and computer-assisted biology, the new research facility will complement the highly experimental range of issues covered at the SIBS in Shanghai, as well as a number of projects at Max Planck Institutes in Germany. Moreover, cooperative ventures are planned with the Shanghai-based Institut Pasteur of Shanghai, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

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