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Machines Like Us

Constructing a 'Google Map' of human metabolism

Sunday, 03 March 2013

The most comprehensive virtual reconstruction of human metabolism to date. Credit: Anna Dröfn Daníelsdóttir, Freyr Jóhannsson, Soffía Jónsdóttir, Sindri Jarlsson, Jón Pétur Gunnarsson & Ronan M. T. Fleming from the University of Iceland.

Building on earlier pioneering work by researchers at the University of California, San Diego, an international consortium of university researchers has produced the most comprehensive virtual reconstruction of human metabolism to date. Scientists could use the model, known as Recon 2, to identify causes of and new treatments for diseases like cancer, diabetes and even psychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders. Each person's metabolism, which represents the conversion of food sources into energy and the assembly of molecules, is determined by genetics, environment and nutrition.

The researchers presented Recon 2 in a paper published online March 3 in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

Doctors have long recognized the importance of metabolic imbalances as an underlying cause of disease, but scientists have been ramping up their research on the connection as a result of compelling evidence enabled by the Human Genome Project and advances in systems biology, which leverages the power of high-powered computing to build vast interactive databases of biological information.

"Recon 2 allows biomedical researchers to study the human metabolic network with more precision than was ever previously possible. This is essential to understanding where and how specific metabolic pathways go off track to create disease," said Bernhard Palsson, Galletti Professor of Bioengineering at UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.

"It's like having the coordinates of all the cars in town, but no street map. Without this tool, we don't know why people are moving the way they are," said Palsson.

He likened Recon 2 to Google mapping for its ability to merge complex details into a single, interactive map. For example, researchers looking at how metabolism sets the stage for cancerous tumor growth could zoom in on the "map" for finely detailed images of individual metabolic reactions or zoom out to look at patterns and relationships among pathways or different sectors of metabolism. This is not unlike how you can get a street view of a single house or zoom out to see how the house fits into the whole neighborhood, city, state, country and globe. And just as Google maps brings together a broad set of data – such as images, addresses, streets and traffic flow – into an easily navigated tool, Recon 2 pulls together a vast compendium of data from published literature and existing models of metabolic processes.

As a multi-scale representation of the human metabolic network, Recon 2 provides essential context for data being reviewed by researchers. Palsson and other scientists in the field have already successfully demonstrated the utility of such models in simple organisms such as yeast and E.coli. As a result, they have been able to engineer these organisms in the lab to improve the efficiency of ethanol production and predict drug resistance in bacteria.