Public Release: 

Virginia Tech researchers receive $450,000 award to model cell division

Important in studying cancer, other cell-based diseases

Virginia Tech

BLACKSBURG, Va., June 26, 2002 -- Cancer is a group of diseases involving misregulation of cell growth and division. The more we know about how cells grow and divide under normal circumstances, the better we will understand how things go awry in cancer cells.

For this reason, John Tyson, University Distinguished Professor of Biology at Virginia Tech, and Bela Novak, professor of biotechnology at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics, are developing mathematical models of the molecular mechanisms that control the way yeast cells grow and assume various shapes.

Their work is being supported by a $450,000 grant from the James S. McDonnell Foundation of St. Louis, Mo.

"Division and shape are important to yeasts because, by growing in specific directions, they are able to seek out viable environments and potential mates," Tyson said. "Understanding how yeast cells control these processes is important to us not only because of the cancer connection, but also because we are still very much in the dark about how genes regulate behavior in the broadest sense.

"While the genome project has provided a parts list of the cell, scientists need a schematic diagram of how all those parts hook together," Tyson said. "From the schematic diagram, we can write equations that govern the behavior of the control system, much like an electrical engineer can write equations for a circuit diagram. With these equations we can predict how a cell will behave under many different conditions."

Although a human cell is more evolved than a yeast cell, a human cell is made of the same sorts of parts that behave in the same way. It was found that "the molecular constituents of the cell cycle control system are functionally interchangeable between yeast and humans," Tyson said. "What we learn about cell division in yeast can be carried over to humans." From what they learn about the molecular mechanism of yeast cell growth and division, Tyson and Novak will attempt to extrapolate the mathematical model to humans.

The McDonnell Foundation funds come from its 21st Century Science Initiative, which provides private funds "to support and encourage researchers pursuing difficult, important projects where results might be more likely to advance our current state of knowledge." The initiative covers three topics: Studying Complex Systems, Brain Cancer Research, and Bridging Brain, Mind, and Behavior. Studying Complex Systems, the area in which Tyson's work falls, emphasizes the development and application of theoretical models used in research fields such as biology, biodiversity, energy, and climate.

The project being conducted by Tyson and Novak is called "Spatial Patterns of Yeast Cell Growth and Division: Molecular Mechanisms and Mathematical Models."


Visit Dr. Novak's lab at or contact Dr. Novak at

PR CONTACT: Sally Harris 540-231-6759

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