News

Thierry Emonet

Crowd Computing with Bacteria: Balancing Phenotypic Diversity and Coordinated Behavior

2/28/2013

Crowd Computing with Bacteria: Balancing Phenotypic Diversity and Coordinated Behavior

2/28/2013

Thierry Emonet

Investigator team: Dr. Thierry Emonet (principal investigator), Associate Professor of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology & Physics, Yale University; Dr. Thomas S. Shimizu (co-investigator), Group Leader at FOM Institute for Atomic and Molecular Physics; Dr. Steven Zucker (co-investigator), Professor of Applied Mathematics and Computer Science, Yale University
Project title: "Crowd Computing with Bacteria: Balancing Phenotypic Diversity and Coordinated Behavior."
Award amount: $1.44 million

What are some of the hurdles you and other pioneering researchers face today?
Pioneering research is risky and therefore very difficult to fund. As a result it often takes longer than it should before the most exciting new questions can be tackled. Programs like the ADI are extremely valuable because they make it possible to overcome these initial barriers and open new horizons at the forefront of science.

What drew your team to this particular research?
How do individuals coordinate to make collective decisions? Can they do this optimally? Do neurons, in brains, organize by similar principles as people in social networks or bacteria in the gut? Is the whole more than a sum of parts? Seeking the general principles behind these questions has led us to study the simplest organisms and the simplest organizations, and this is how we ended up studying E. coli. The simplicity of bacteria allows one to connect questions at many scales, from molecular processes to collective dynamics of populations under natural selection. The project is highly interdisciplinary and so is our team, which involves expertise in biology, physics, computation and mathematics.

What are you aiming to achieve by the end of your ADI grant cycle?
To achieve a formal understanding of how molecular fluctuations in bacterial cells contribute to the fascinating large scale dynamics that they exhibit when they engage in collective foraging behaviors. By abstracting this in mathematical and computational terms, we hope to understand precisely how these ideas can apply to other biological and social systems as well.

How might your project contribute to answering some of the biggest questions in science today?
We live in an era of collective interaction that is not well understood. The internet has made global social networks possible, but people evolved in a broader context that includes our environment and our food. How to develop an appreciation for diversity among these processes of internet homogenization remains a fundamental issue. For the first time we have the tools to start addressing these questions, at least for simple organisms. Our project is unique in its potential to connect two branches of biological inquiry: one that seeks general principles of collective biological organization, and another that seeks general principles at the molecular and cellular scale. Historically, these two disciplines have developed quite independently, but recent technological advances in our labs make it possible to link the two in a rigorous experimental context. Hopefully this will shed light on the larger questions.

What can you share with others interested in a career in science?
Being a scientist is one of the most liberating professions, if one is inclined to seek intellectual freedom. Many students view science as a bundle of facts, while their social and family networks are all about interaction. DNA and algebra would seem to have nothing in common --- so are not nearly as interesting --- as what happens when Harry meets Sally. But science is not just facts; it is perhaps the richest and deepest system ever devised for understanding interaction. We are, by default, part of our social networks. Working in science is the best way to get inside this other system for understanding both ourselves and the rest of the universe. This brings with it a kind of intellectual freedom to explore ideas that carries its own form of excitement and satisfaction.

- Dr. Steven Zucker (co-investigator), Professor of Applied Mathematics and Computer Science, Yale University

"Working in science is the best way to get inside this other system for understanding both ourselves and the rest of the universe. This brings with it a kind of intellectual freedom to explore ideas that carries its own form of excitement and satisfaction." Dr. Thierry Emonet