Evolutionary Systems Biology lab (VIB, UGent) develops a computational model of a gene regulatory network, offering new insights on the evolution and function of complex biological systems.

Evolutionary Systems Biology lab (UGent, VIB)

The Evolutionary Systems Biology lab is a young and dynamic research laboratory at the Plant Systems Biology department of VIB and Ghent University, led by Prof. Dr. Ir. Steven Maere. Its main goal is to understand how plant developmental systems work and how they evolve.

Computational study

Dr. Jayson Gutiérrez is a postdoc at the Evolutionary Systems Biology lab and describes his research.

“The way in which cellular organisms behave is determined by a set of genes that interact with each other in a so-called regulatory network. The main components of this network are DNA-binding proteins, which have evolved to fully control the expression of genetic information into the phenotype. Over evolutionary time scales, changes in the regulatory wiring of these networks provide a major source of functional innovation, potentially mediating the adaptation of organisms to changing environmental conditions.”

Dr. Gutiérrez is one of the researchers in Prof. Maere's group that try to understand these regulatory networks at the mechanistic level by developing an elaborate computational model.

“Using different types of evolutionary algorithms, and by relying on the supercomputing infrastructure of the VSC, we have gathered massive amounts of information on how the network model reacts. This allows us to test existing hypotheses, and to formulate new ones. Our simulation results offer exciting new insights on the evolution and function of complex biological systems.”

But that is not all. A fully functioning mechanistic network model of this kind can also be used in synthetic biology, to engineer small regulatory circuits with distinct cellular behaviors.

“For instance, our model could give cues on how to design organisms that perform specific biological tasks, such as produce particular nutrients or small chemical compounds.”

VSC facilitates computational research

Dr. Gutiérez: “The execution of this project would not have been possible without the use of the massive computer resources provided by the VSC infrastructure and the fantastic IT support!”