Section: Research Program

Computational Cell Biology

Beagle contributes computational models and simulations to the study of cell signaling in prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells, with a special focus on the dynamics of cell signaling both in time and in space. Importantly, our objective here is not so much to produce innovative computer methodologies, but rather to improve our knowledge of the field of cell biology by means of computer methodologies.

This objective is not accessible without a thorough immersion in experimental cell biology. Hence, one specificity of Beagle is to be closely associated inside each research project with experimental biology groups. For instance, all the current PhD students implicated in the research projects below have strong interactions with experimenters, most of them conducting experiments themselves in our collaborators' labs. In such a case, the supervision of their PhD is systematically shared between an experimentalist and a theoretician (modeler/computer scientist).

Standard modeling works in cell biochemistry are usually based on mean-field equations, most often referred to as “laws of mass-action”€. Yet, the derivation of these laws is based on strict assumptions. In particular, the reaction medium must be dilute, perfectly-mixed, three-dimensional and spatially homogeneous and the resulting kinetics are purely deterministic. Many of these assumptions are obviously violated in cells. As already stressed out before, the external membrane or the interior of eukaryotic as well as prokaryotic cells evidence spatial organization at several length scales, so that they must be considered as non-homogeneous media. Moreover, in many case, the small number of molecule copies present in the cell violates the condition for perfect mixing, and more generally, the “law of large numbers” supporting mean-field equations.

When the laws-of-mass-action are invalidated, individual-based models (IBM) appear as the best modeling alternative to evaluate the impact of these specific cellular conditions on the spatial and temporal dynamics of the signaling networks. We develop Individual-Based Models to evaluate the fundamental impact of non-homogeneous space conditions on biochemical diffusion and reaction. More specifically, we focus on the effects of two major sources of non-homogeneity within cells: macromolecular crowding and non-homogeneous diffusion. Macromolecular crowding provides obstacles to the diffusive movement of the signaling molecules, which may in turn have a strong impact on biochemical reactions [45]. In this perspective, we use IBM to renew the interpretation of the experimental literature on this aspect, in particular in the light of the available evidence for anomalous subdiffusion in living cells. Another pertinent source of non-homogeneity is the presence of lipid rafts and/or caveolae in eukaryotic cell membranes that locally alter diffusion. We showed several properties of these diffusion gradients on cells membranes. In addition, combining IBMs and cell biology experiments, we investigate the spatial organization of membrane receptors in plasmic membranes and the impact of these spatial features on the initiation of the signaling networks [49]. More recently, we started to develop IBMs to propose experimentally-verifiable tests able to distinguish between hindered diffusion due to obstacles (macromolecular crowding) and non-homogeneous diffusion (lipid rafts) in experimental data.

The last aspect we tackle concerns the stochasticity of gene expression. Indeed, the stochastic nature of gene expression at the single cell level is now a well established fact [55]. Most modeling works try to explain this stochasticity through the small number of copies of the implicated molecules (transcription factors, in particular). In collaboration with the experimental cell biology group led by Olivier Gandrillon at the Centre de Génétique et de Physiologie Moléculaire et Cellulaire (CGPhyMC, UMR CNRS 5534), Lyon, we study how stochastic gene expression in eukaryotic cells is linked to the physical properties of the cellular medium (e.g., nature of diffusion in the nucleoplasm, promoter accessibility to various molecules, crowding). We have already developed a computer model whose analysis suggests that factors such as chromatin remodeling dynamics have to be accounted for [51]. Other works introduce spatial dimensions in the model, in particular to estimate the role of space in complex (protein+ DNA) formation. Such models should yield useful insights into the sources of stochasticity that are currently not explained by obvious causes (e.g. small copy numbers).