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Last Updated: Friday, 3 November 2006, 16:56 GMT
Computer bug study wins top prize
Escherichia coli
Computational biology is becoming increasingly important
A UK scientist has won one of the largest international prizes in science for his work on the bacterium E.coli.

Dr Dennis Bray from the University of Cambridge was given the European Science Award for his innovative computer simulations of the bacterium.

The 250,000 Euro (170,000) award recognises research at the interface between computing and the sciences.

Dr Bray's simulations shed light on the molecular systems that allow bacteria to respond to environmental changes.

"The system we have been focusing on is the one that enables bacteria to smell and swim towards sources of food," Dr Bray told the BBC News website.

Data overload

This process, known as chemotaxis, also allows bacteria like E.coli to avoid poisons.

A greater understanding of the system could help prevent the spread of disease.

Dr Dennis Bray
Any little corner of a living cell is just full of complicated machinery and molecules
Dennis Bray
University of Cambridge

However, the European Science Award, presented jointly by the UK's Royal Society, the French Academie des Sciences and software giant Microsoft, recognises Dr Bray's efforts to bring the power of computing to bear on cell biology.

"Today, computational sciences are of primary importance in all areas of science," said Professor Edouard Brezin, president of the Academie des Sciences.

"Together with experiment, computer models are now able to provide information which would not be accessible otherwise."

The field of computational biology has become increasingly important as the rapidly expanding number of projects that sequence the genes and proteins of organisms churn out more and more data.

"It's got to the point where you can't progress without it," Dr Bray said. "We're just drowning in data."

The use of computers to model the biological systems allows scientists to understand their function much more quickly.

"Any little corner of a living cell is just full of complicated machinery and molecules," said Dr Bray.

"There's just no way that one person thinking about it, can work it all out"

Test bed

Bacterial chemotaxis provides an ideal platform to test computer models because it is one of the few systems where all of the individual components that influence cell behaviour are known.

Hence, discrepancies between what the scientists see in biological experiments and what they see in the simulations allows them to test the models. If there is a mismatch it suggests the model is incorrect and needs to be refined.

These anomalies can also lead to discoveries about the biological system itself.

"One thing we discovered in this way is that thousands of receptor molecules on the bacterial surface work together, making a highly sensitive 'nose' that can detect and analyse the smells from different food sources," said Dr Bray.

When the computer simulations reach a point where they mimic an organism accurately, Dr Bray believes they could be used as experimental objects in their own right, rather than using a biological organism.

Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society said that Dr Bray's work "demonstrates why computational biology will be essential for making progress in the field of biology more generally."

Professor Rees will present the award to Dr Bray at a ceremony at the Royal Society on 30 November.

Dr Bray said he would use the money to set up a new computational lab at the University of Cambridge.

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