By Ben Coxworth | Gizmag
The entire Mycoplasma genitalium bacterium has been replicated as a computer model
For the first time ever, a computer model of a complete living organism has been created. True, it’s a single-celled organism – in fact, it’s the world’s smallest free-living bacterium, Mycoplasma genitalium. Still, all of its systems and the relationships between them have been replicated in silico, allowing scientists to conduct research that might otherwise have proved impossible. It also paves the way for computer modeling of more complex organisms, such as humans.
The model was created by a team led by assistant professor of bioengineering Markus Covert, at California’s Stanford University.
They chose M. genitalium mainly because at 525 genes, it has the smallest genome of any free-living organism. The more well-known Escherichia coli bacterium, by contrast, has 4,288 genes. While some strains of E. coli have a well-earned reputation for causing maladies such as food poisoning, M. genitalium is itself no angel – the sexually-transmitted bacterium is the source of genital infections such as urethritis and vaginosis.
The team utilized data from over 900 scientific papers on the bacterium, which between them covered every molecular interaction that takes place within the organism’s life cycle. The resulting model incorporates over 1,900 separate parameters, which the scientists grouped into 28 distinct modules. Each module is responsible for a different biological process, and is controlled by its own unique algorithm. The modules also communicate back and forth, accurately replicating the way in which the biological processes within the actual bacterium affect one other.
In fact, that’s one of the most valuable aspects of the model. Traditionally, when experimenting with real bacteria, scientists manipulate one gene and then look for noticeable changes within the organism. With a computer model, however, researchers are instantly made aware of any changes that occur within any of the bacterium’s systems.
Of course, it shouldn’t just be taken for granted that everything observed in the model will be identical to what would happen in an actual M. genitalium. That’s why any conclusions drawn from studying the model would have to be backed up with observations of the bacterium itself – at least with the model, however, scientists would know what to be looking for.
“If you use a model to guide your experiments, you’re going to discover things faster,” said Covert. “We’ve shown that time and time again.”