Amity Manning, left, and Sarah Olson

Exploring Cell Division with Computational Models

Researchers can watch human cell division under microscopes, manipulate genes and proteins involved in the process, and monitor the consequences when defects occur, but there are limits to how much can be accomplished in a lab.

That’s why Sarah Olson and Amity Manning have turned to computational modeling to better understand a critical piece of cellular machinery that often goes awry in cancer.

With a $917,999 award from the National Institutes of Health, they are using mathematical techniques and biological findings to assess how cellular forces influence the geometry of the mitotic spindle, a part of the cell’s machinery that is responsible for separating genetic material during cell division.

“There is too much going on during cell division to tease out and examine all the possible forces at work through laboratory experiments,” says Olson, professor and interim head of the Mathematical Sciences Department and principal investigator for the three-year project. “But by combining experiments with modeling, you can explore factors that lead to defective spindle structure in cells.”

Computational models use math and computer simulations to adjust numerous variables in a complex system and observe outcomes. Olson and Manning, both of whom are affiliated with WPI’s Bioinformatics and Computational Biology program, have previously used computational models to illuminate the forces in human epithelial cells during division.

Their project will use models to simplify complex functions and test scenarios in cell division. They expect laboratory experiments to inform new computational models, and the models to spur additional laboratory experiments.

“This is truly a collaborative project with a balance of math and biology,” says Manning, assistant professor of biology and biotechnology and co-principal investigator for the project. “We can brainstorm and think about modeling questions, biological questions, and how we can apply our expertise to this problem.”

Read the WPI news release.


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