Uncovering Secrets of Cells
In the world of biology, living cells are like illusionists. They tease and taunt observers with seemingly-simple exteriors that belie complex internal machine-like structures. They have secrets to hide, and don’t give them up easily.
It’s those secrets that Dennis Discher, Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, is dedicated to uncovering. And he’s doing it by tackling the ‘how’ and ‘why’: How does a cell sense and why do various systems within a cell work the way they do?
Because cells are the building blocks of life, understanding the ‘hows and whys’ of cell systems will have a global impact on human health. But getting to the answer is a formidable challenge, considering that cell systems (proteins, lipids, DNA and RNA) are the smallest of the small. To get answers to imperative biological questions, Discher, who is a member in the interdisciplinary graduate groups of Physics and Cell and
Molecular Biology, is undertaking the complex unraveling of cellular systems via a multi-disciplinary approach.
“A multifaceted approach respects the biological complexity,” says Discher, who believes the different foci, backgrounds and views that engineers, biologists, chemists, physicists, and mathematicians have help gain an understanding of how biological systems work. “Opportunities emerge when we bring a different set of models, materials and tools to bear on current questions in a field. Here, we learn a lot from each other while allowing science to follow its course. The biologists in the group always help with context, such as the microenvironment around cells, the physicists develop tools and sophisticated analyses, the chemists make and characterize new materials, and the various engineers in the group help glue it all together.”
Consider the study of proteins, the workhorse of every living organism. Their activity makes biology ‘work’. Some proteins are responsible for structural or mechanical roles, some regulate chemical reactions, some are involved in storage or transportation, some provide immune response. And before any protein does what it is supposed to do, it folds itself into a specific three-dimensional structure.
Discher wants to understand how and why proteins fold into specific structures, at specific times in specific contexts. That answer could deliver a better understanding of processes in development and disease, perhaps provide new means of control over stem cell function or provide insight into the origin and course of diseases like cancer, and help in the design of synthetic proteins for biotechnological applications.
Credit: Penn Engineering Magazine, “Uncovering Secrets of Cells,” by Amy Biemiller.