How does a cell decide what to do when facing environmental changes? Depending on the change, the cell could stay dormant, grow or even commit suicide.
Many diseases are caused by cells in our body that make “wrong” decisions. For example, when a cell that should stay dormant decides to grow and refuses to stop, it causes cancer.
My collaborators and I study how complex networks of genes control the fate of individual cells. We have identified a critical network switch that determines dormancy and growth of cells.
Cells respond to chemical and physical signals that regulate cell growth through a gene network composed of interwoven parts.
To understand how each cell responds to growth signals, we simulate the dynamic changes in the gene network with computers. We test those simulation results in laboratory experiments with individual cells and use the experimental results to update our computer models.
We found that the gene network converts transient and graded growth signals into an “all-or-none” activation of a critical gene, named E2F, within each cell. The behavior of this all-or-none switch determines the final cell growth.
We are now using similar approaches to “read the mind” of individual cells as they decide their fates. Understanding how cells make such decisions in response to various environmental signals may improve the treatment of a range of diseases, including cancer and aging.