Thursday, March 31, 2005

Fake fly

"Engineering gene networks to emulate Drosophila embryonic pattern formation" is a recently-published paper that describes an implementation of an idea I'd been thinking about as an application of synthetic biology to studying animal development [and while it's kind of annoying to see somebody else publish the results of an experiment I was thinking of trying, at least it means I'm thinking about the right things :-)]. The basic idea is this: animal development, from the single fertilized cell to the fully-developed animal, is a really complicated, poorly-understood process. Maybe if we can build our own, simplified version of certain aspects of the development process, we can learn something about how it all works. That's what the authors of this paper did: they built a system that mimics certain aspects of fruitfly development, in an attempt to get some insights into how the chemical concentration gradients that are known to exist in Drosophila embryos are established and maintained.

After reading the paper [in an admittedly rather cursory fashion], though, I must say I'm a bit disappointed. I can't really place my finger on why, other than the vague feeling that somehow their artificial system is too artificial -- they didn't use live cells, they glued bits of DNA into specific locations to mimic localized protein production etc. So, in the end, I don't know whether their results really tell me much about what's actually going on in living cells or just what's going on in their little artificial system. While that's always a question when you perform experiments entirely in vitro [ie not in actual cells], in some cases it's easier to argue that your results are relevant to living cells than in other cases. In this instance, I think it'd be hard to make a very convincing argument.

All that said, I still think it's an interesting paper, at least in terms of helping to clarify my thinking on how I would do this [or not do it] if I were to tackle a similar problem.

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