Natura nusquam magis est tota quam in minimis

Plinus

Our Vision: for a Symplectic Biology

Contents

Models and Techniques

Science evolves by an intricate association between creation of concepts and techniques (see A Western Imbroglio) and a constant dialog back and forth between discoveries and applications. The future of genomics, and synthetic biology in partivular, is therefore impossible to separate from the future of the associated techniques, among which the development of computer sciences and the mathematics of integers will play a key role:

Discoveries Theorems Predictions
Techniques Applications
Facts
Given 
Hypotheses (explicit)
Approach Hypothesis-driven
Heuristics (implicit)
Data-driven
Context-driven
Deduction
Constructed 
Induction

Abduction

The way by which Science proceeds is the hypothetico-deductive method, which uses a model of Reality to confront it with actual performances of experiments. While it is efficient to set the stage and produce a strong theoretical background for the progress of science, used alone it cannot lead to discovery. Discovery cannot be planned. Discovery-driven research has therefore to combine this standard (Greco-Latin) way with the more Anglo-American Data-driven and the Chinese Context-driven approaches.

A metaphor: the Delphic boat (comments)

A presentation of the nature of symplectic biology has been given at the conference Le Logique et le Biologique, april 22nd, 2005

Our work aims at seing post-sequencing biology as symplectic (συν: together,   πλεκτειν, to weave) biology, where the links between objects make the core of the discoveries to come. This is in fact the underlying assumption of the new discipline sometimes known as "synthetic" biology.

Amongst the questions asked by the Oracle of Delphi, Pythia, was a fundamental question directly related to the nature of the artefacts produced and used by living organisms – an enigma, as the Oracle’s questions always were. If we consider a boat made of planks of wood, carefully fitted together, we may well ask, what is it that makes the boat a boat? This question is more than just a mind game, as is clear from the fact that as time passes, some of the planks begin to rot and have to be replaced. There comes a time when not one of the original planks is left.

The boat still looks like the original one, yet in material terms it has changed. Is it still the same boat? The owner would certainly say yes, this is my boat. Yet none of the material it was originally built from is still there. If we were to analyse the components of the boat, the planks, we would not learn very much. We can see this if we take the boat to pieces: it is reduced to a pile of planks – but they are not the same ones as at the beginning! The physical nature of these objects plays some role of course – a boat made from planks of oak is different from a boat made from planks of pine – but this is fairly incidental. (It is very important to remember this when we think about the possibility of life existing elsewhere in the universe – there is absolutely no reason why it should be made of the same molecules as life on Earth.) What is important about the material of the planks, apart from their relative stability over time, is the fact that it allows them to be shaped, so that they relate to each other in a certain way. The boat is not the material it is made from, but something else, much more interesting, which organizes the material of the planks: the boat is the relationship between the planks. Similarly, the study of life should never be restricted to objects, but must look into their relationships. This is why a genome cannot be regarded as simply a collection of genes. It is much more than that.

Studying relationships is essentially what Georges Cuvier was doing – and what paleontologists still do – when he took a few bones of an long-extinct animal, or even sometimes a single tooth, and proposed a reconstruction of the entire creature. This importance of relationships is not a trivial property, to be noted in passing, but a hard fact with considerable practical and theoretical implications, and we will come back to this at length when we look at theories of biological information, in the next chapter. The fundamental importance of relationships, which represent a particular interpretation of form, was noticed more than 2,500 years ago by Empedocles and many of the pre-Socratic philosophers. St Thomas Aquinas also refers to it when he analyses the philosophical status of the concept of creation: “when motion is taken away, only different relations remain.” Relationships in an organised whole not only tell much about that past events that allowed to make them work together, but also foresee some aspects of the future, since the place of missing or altered parts is pre-constrained by the whole (for a detailes view of the role of the whole, see The Tree and the Ring).

A renewed future for Darwinism

When Darwin wrote The Origin of Species the concept of gene did not exist yet. The idea that evolution of species occured by progressive transformation had been developed by Lamarck, but this was within the pre-atomist paradigm of the four elements (Fire, Air, Water and Earth: he spoke of the "Internal Fire" as the cause of evolution). Darwin reinvented the selective theory proposed by Empedocles, adding to the composition of variation and selection, that of the biological power of amplification through the multiplication of individuals, as then recently developed by Malthus.

The empedoclean, maupertuisian, malthusian, darwinian trio

Variation / Selection / Amplification

Evolution

Function

Structure

Sequence

states that material systems evolve, creating functions, which, to be implemented, capture (or recruits) existing structures (hence the "tinkering" aspect of life development). Molecular genetics, then genomics added to this general driving-pattern, the algorithmic nature of DNA sequences. A consequence of this is that the structure does not tell the function, in general. Therefore, to understand what life is, using the genome texts, we must include biological knowledge (including the life style of the organisms of interest) to our knowledge of genomes.

A physical status for Natural Selection

Life is inseparable from creation of information. The central question to understand this phenomenon as a physico-chemical phenomenon is therefore to understand both whether creation of information is physically possible, and under which conditions, and how information can be progressively accumulated in self-sustaining systems.

uc

 

A new paradigm: the genetics of genomes

Until the first genome sequences were deciphered, life was studied as bits and pieces: organisms, organs, cells, genes, transcripts, proteins, metabolites... This analytic attitude, which was often named "reductionist", was similar to that of the clockmaker disassembling a clock: the heap of pieces does not make the clock work (nor allows it to be understood). The first analysis of the genome text has shown that the order of genes in genomes is not random (see these references for first examples - A, B - of non-random distribution of sequences in bacterial DNA). It is therefore no longer possible to study simply individual genes or proteins if one wishes to understand the processes of life. We need to use large-scale techniques, where one monitors simultaneously the fate of many cells, genes, transcripts, proteins or metabolites. Subsequently, it become necessary to integrate these data into a consistent picture which leads to an explanation of what we witness. This is the goal of genomics (the widely used "post-genomics" is a useless oxymore, meaning in fact "post-sequencing").

Since genomes, not genes, become the objects of interest, we have to study them as a whole, and to compare genomes with other genomes, not simply genes with genes or proteins with proteins. We now have the catalog of basic metabolites (a few hundred are needed to make a cell work: this is not much more than Mendeleiev's table of atoms), and of basic functions. However, one of the main prediction of the genetics of genomes is that it is algorithmic (see below), therefore able to create new products (metabolic, genes, functions...) as time elapses. Life is open ended, not self-limiting. This view is complemented by that of cells seen as computers making computers, triggering intriguing questions about the presence of an "image of the machine" somewhere in the cell .

Genomics integrates the study of the organisms in their life condition:

in vivo

it requires to discover all the components they are made of, and must study their structure and dynamics:

in vitro

finally it must now use experiments with computers to study the genome as a cyphered text written in an unknown language:

in silico

This starts a cycle where biological knowledge is integrated with the genome text analysis, permitting the scientist to make predictions, which must be tested in vivo by reverse genetics (where altered genes are made to replace their normal parent in situ) and in vitro by characterizing the gene products and their interactions.

A first prediction: there is a map of the cell in the chromosome

There is now no doubt that genes are not distributed randomly in the chromosome of a bacterium such as E. coli. And this is visibly linked to the function of the proteins specified by the genes, and by the architecture of the cell. This observation is, at first sight, a mystery: how can one understand, indeed, the link which must exist between a symbolic text, the gene text, its products and an architecture? For a correspondence to exist there must exist a physical link between these different aspects of Reality. There must exist, somewhere between the gene, its product and the place where it must be located in the cell, some targeting process. And, if we are to stay with the simplicity of Ockham's razor — not multiply the hypotheses — we must look for simple physico-chemical principles. Let us now proceed somewhat as did the presocratic philosophers when they investigated the necessary constraints operating on the world — with the obvious risk to be far too general and too unprecise, but with the hope for trying new paths for our investigation. Let us reason using symmetry (not in shape of course, but in the nature of physical laws) as a basic principle.

Let us study the becoming of the product of a single gene, a protein, synthesized on a ribosome. It may face two situations. Either it does not interact with itself, and the absence of specific constraints (this represents the true meaning of entropy) will lead it equally well in all directions, in all locations in the cell. Or it has some affinity for itself (the case for repulsion, theoretically possible, is rare with biological objects, at least at the molecular scale, if not at the cellular scale). Some region of its surface, A, will interact with region B of a second molecule of the same protein. This makes a dimer. But this dimer possesses on the first subunit a free B region, while the second subunit has an A free region. This is of course the most general situation, but there are special situation where A and B contact each other, creating a dimer with a symmetry similar (in three dimensions!) to that of the Yin and Yang figure. In the general case however, while the ribosome synthesizes a third instance of the protein, this latter one will have the same tendency as the formers, to associate to the complex they form. But this association is not random: it must occur mainly at the particular regions of the proteins making a region A, face a region B, in the proper orientation. This process will continue as more proteins are synthesized. In the most general case this yields an helix structure. This simple reasoning shows that the helix is the first among the biological forms. It is therefore the most frequent and the most trivial one. Until now, nothing very surprising, but the acknowledgement of the existence of an essential form, dissymetrical by construction, at the root of all living forms (and we find here the word of Pasteur: "Dissymmetry is life!").

Another remarkable consequence of this property is that helicoidal forms permit the cell to make length measurements with an exquisite precision! It is what happens during the formation of the tail of some viruses (an appendix which serves them to inject their genome into the host cell). The trick is to uses a couple of helices with a different pitch, one helix making a tube into which the second one fits. These pitches of course have to be commensurable (but this is always true at some length, because of the thermal fluctuations underwent by all biological structures). Beginning at the same point, the helixes begin to part from each other. But after a certain number of turns the extremities of both helices are once again in the vicinity of each other on the same radius of the base circle. This creates a context where the construction can be terminated. Subsequently, a process continuing the construction of the virus (the construction of its head), triggers the depolymerisation of the internal scaffolding helix, made of identical subunits, which are released in the medium, leaving a hollow tail having a well-defined length. This process, which uses the adequation of the folding of two helices is certainly very general. It derives directly from the use of the ubiquitous helical form, transforming the constraints of necessity into an elaborate means to create new formal properties, such as that of measuring length. In the same way, time may also be measured by several kinds of processes, usually quite simple. Because nucleic acids (RNAs and DNA) make also helices, they constrain very strongly the systems which interact with them, allowing, once again, for proper positioning, and this may be the mechanism which allows the enzyme (telomerase) that take charge of the extremities of the chromosomes when they are linear, the telomeres, to restore their length when they have been shortened by a succession of replication events.

Evolution is exploration, and, as proteins aggregate into helicoïdal structures they will explore all kinds of pitches, with many different base circles, leaving in their inside a more or less wide hole, as genes vary by mutations. Among the explored pitches is the flat pitch (that is, in which all subunits stay in a plane instead of building up an helix). This leads therefore to cyclic structures. The geometrical properties of all these structures have been studied since Antiquity. They comprise, in particular, the regular polyedra dear to Plato, which he describes in Timeos. And, as a matter of fact, such polymers do exist in many biological structures. They form, for example, many viral capsides. Now, a construction of this type (an icosaedral virus, for instance), possesses a simple property, that one identifies easily following the line of reasoning which was followed until now (this was done considering single subunits): if it does not interact with something particular, it will naturally tend to explore the whole cell. At some point it will, therefore, meet the cell membrane. This is what will allow it to get out of the cell.

The largest increase in entropy of a molecular complex in water is when its surface / volume ratio is the highest. This is the case especially of plane layers, and this is minimised in spherical structures. As a consequence, when a plane meets another one, it can loose a layer of water molecules and stick there, piling up. Among all these structures there exist one which has a remarkable property, it is the hexagone. Indeed, regular hexagones will necessarily form a plane paving if they interact, a structure similar to that discovered by bees in their nests. Many geometrical structures can lead to planar structures, but regular hexagons have only two ways to interact: either they pile upon each other, forming tubes, or they form planes. Indeed many membrane structures are made of planar layers, and in particular of pieces of hexagonal paving. Let us imagine what happens to a piece of hexagonal plane, made of subunits being synthesized in a ribosome, associated to the corresponding messenger RNA. This fragment will spontaneously move away from its biosynthesis place, either following the trend of the fluid movements inside the cell, or moving along an electrostatic gradient, or any other form of diffusive movement. Roughly speaking, it will tend to escape from the place where it is. This means that it will move until it reaches some obstacle. And the first obstacle it will meet has also the property to be, locally, a plane, therefore preadapted to interact with a piece of plane paving, this is one of the cell's membrane structures! Will this piece of plane bounce back, and go back inside the cell? In most cases, certainly not. In water, a piece of plane imposes that the water molecules in its neighborhood have only a limited number of available positions and states. Its presence, amid the water solution, is therefore extremely constraining in terms of entropy. If, in the course of its diffusion in the medium, it meets with a planar surface, the water molecules present on the layer at the interface will be eliminated into the solution, where they can meet a much larger number of positions and states. The piling up of such structures, at the moment when they loose one water molecule layer at their surface will therefore be extremely favored by the second principle of thermodynamics.

One may therefore expect that all hexagonal structures, or any other more complex structure making plane pavings, will be rapidly piling up under the cell's membrane. This will happen without any special requirement for specific electrostatic charges (there can exist however a small electrostatic effect, which will direct more rapidly the fragment of plane toward the surface), or specific interactions with membrane lipids, to account for this original architectural property. What makes the principle of the interaction is simply the fact that planes pile up easily, simply because they are plane. As a matter of fact, when compared to other genometrical structures, the plane provides the largest ratio, by far, of its surface as compared to the volume of the object it constitutes, and it leads to the largest entropy contribution at the moment when it piles onto another plane. One can easily conceive, then, that this very simple physical principle — which uses the natural propensity of things, the shi of the Chinese, to go towards the direction of an increase of entropy — may have the property to act as a guiding principle in the construction of the cell's architecture. It is still too early to be sure of this prediction. But the first results which we obtained when we studied the structure of the E. coli genome suggest that the distribution of the genes which code for proteins making hexagonal pavings appears to display some regularity along the chromosome.

To conclude and summarize: a distinctive feature of living organisms is the ubiquitous presence of membrane structures. In fact a general "strategy" of evolution has been either to compartmentalize the cell with a single — albeit sometimes very complex — envelope, made of a lipid bilayer, or to multiply membranes and skins. Once again, this structure corresponds a posteriori to an efficient way to use the natural tendency of things to increase their entropy for the following reason. Liquid water is a highly organised fluid, which has as a built in principle the natural tendency for water molecules to occupy as many energy and spatial states as possible. This leads to systematic demixing of those molecules which are in contact with water molecules, unless they provide energy favoured interactions. As a consequence, the increase in entropy is the driving force for the construction of many biological structures: this physical parameter is at the root of the universal formation of helices, it drives the folding of proteins and the formation of viral capsids, it organises membranes into bilayers and creates higher complex biological structures. It already seems certain that as more and more new genome texts will be deciphered, corresponding to cells with a variety of architectures (or submitted to strong physical constraints such as cold conditions, for example), the concrete processes used in the construction of their parts, associated to the mechanisms of evolution which led to the present state, will be better and better understood. In particular, while it is still difficult at the turn of the century to understand the complicated structure of eucaryotic cells (characterized by the multiplication of membrane structures: nucleus, endoplasmic reticulum, vacuoles, a variety of organelles,...) we shall understand progressively how this organization relies to that of the genome, and in particular to the split nature of the genes, which are fragmented into introns and exons. One may already think that the piling up of planar structures play there an important role: if the layers of the endoplasmic reticulum are synthesized from centers located in the vicinity of the nucleus, then one may see this synthesis as putting into play a kind of rolling carpet, which carries along in the cell the translation machinery associated with the messenger RNAs and their products.

If these physical constraints operate, they must be visible somehow in the genome text. Indeed, they indicate a compartmentalization of the gene products, which have therefore to be synthesized in a coordinate fashion both in time and in space. For genes expressed at a very low level, or rarely, this is probably not too important (we have however uncovered an original distribution of essential genes, even when expressed at a low level), since the diffusion time may be enough to allow the gene product to explore many of the situations, but this is not so for genes expressed at a high level, or frequently. Then there must be some kind of correlation between the neighborhood of the genes in the chromosome, and that of their products in the cell. We have observed that there exists a strong bias in the base composition of the leading and lagging DNA strand in many bacterial genomes. This is true despite the fact that the way DNA is managed (as witnessed by the variation in the number of repeats present in genomes) varies immensely from a species to another one. This indicates that, in contrast to what is often stated, genomes are rather rigid entities, which do not allow much change in gene order (unless the change are symmetrical with respect to the origins of replication). There is indeed lateral gene transfer — and our studies were the first to demonstrate this convincingly — but gene transfer does not occur at random. There are hot spots where foreign DNA can be placed (in particular this seems to be the case of the terminus of replication in bacteria).

If a DNA molecule the length of the E. coli genome were coiled randomly, standard polymer theory tells us that it would fit a sphere with a diameter of ca 10 micrometer at physiological salt concentration: ten times more than the diameter of the cell. Superordered structures of DNA must therefore account for the DNA packaging in the cell. They include supercoiling, organisation into domains, and attachment to specific sites. Are these physical constraints reflected in the genome sequence? Preliminary studies with the yeast genome suggested indeed that such structures exist in this organism. We can notice here that the ability to pack DNA into a small compartment is a strong selection pressure explaining the existence of a structure such as a nucleus: this limits considerably the number of available states of the molecule and allow organisation of its behavior. This means that the number of degrees of freedom offered to DNA increases when the compartment grows (the cell or the nucleus). As a consequence, there is a spontaneous (entropy driven!) tendency of replicating DNA, to occupy the new space offered by cell growth, creating a natural process for DNA segregation into the daughter cells.

The main folding problem of long polymers such as DNA or RNA is indeed that they have a great many number of possible states. If they were free to diffuse, this would be incompatible with any organisation of the cell architecture. In fact, a set of freely moving long polymers would rapidly tangle into an unsortable bulk of knotted structures, even if they diffused through an organised lattice (such as the ribosome lattice). There is a way out, however. Anchoring points provide a very efficient way to drastically lower the number of states available for polymer conformations. A single anchoring point, as is assumed in the general models of transcription, would already strongly restrict the number of explored states. As seen with what happens with uncombed long hair, this might not be sufficient to reduce enough the number of states that transcripts would still be able explore, but this would limit the formation of knots. It is well established that two anchoring points instead of only one would limit drastically the exploration of possible states and reduce it to a manageable number. How could this be achieved in the cell?

A first answer stems from the observation of electron microscopy images of the translating machinery. It is observed that, along of a messenger RNA molecule, the ribosomes are spread in a remarkably regular order. But the physical organization of the cell has no reason to follow the genetic information flow, which goes from DNA to RNA to protein. This is a purely conceptual view which, although it is unfortunately spread into the vast majority of text books, has the defect of being utterly unrealistic. In contrast, it it most likely that the ribosomes, organised as a slowly moving lattice, control the nature of gene expression. Nascent RNA coming off DNA is pulled by a first ribosome which scans for the translation initiation region (ribosome binding site and initiation codon) and begins to translate, then by the next one, as in a wire-drawing machine. Considering that most of the cell's inertia and that the major part of the cell's energy is in the translation machinery (it is energy costly to synthesize mRNA, but one mRNA molecule is translated at least twenty times, and energy is used for loading aminoacids on tRNA and elongating the polypeptide chain in the ribosome, with concomitant displacement of the mRNA thread), it is the structure of the ribosome network that organises the mechanics of gene expression. Translation / transcription coupling makes DNA move and brings at its surface new genes ready for transcription. The messenger RNA passes from a ribosome to the next one, controlling synthesis of the protein it specifies at each ribosome. In passing, we can note that this process ensures that the distribution of proteins in the cell does not from a three dimension diffusion process (which would be very slow) but by the simple linear diffusion of the messenger RNA through the ribosome lattice. Finally, as soon as an appropriate signal reaches the ribosome at the same time as the translated messenger, this triggers degradation of the mRNA from its 5'-end using a (yet unknown) degradation process, thus ending its expression.

A refinement of this model, curiously never explored explicitly, does not assume that nascent mRNA molecules enter ribosomes and start being translated from their 5'-extremity. In contrast, it supposes that the 5'-triphosphate end of the message folds back, and remains linked to RNA polymerase until a specific signal, which can be located way downstream, tells it to detach (and to terminate transcription). Antitermination has been thoroughly investigated in the case of the antitermination protein N of bacteriophage lambda. This process is readily compatible with a scanning process permitting the 5'-end of the RNA to explore what happens in 3'-downstream sequences. The stringent coupling of stable RNA synthesis to translation was also found to be linked to the transcription elongation process. However, no clear-cut picture of the control events of these processes are yet known. Since it is certainly very difficult at this time to visualise in living cells the ongoing transcription process, it will be interesting to look for 5'-3' correlations in the nucleotide sequences of operons. This hypothesis thus places us back to the in silico study of the genome text, demonstrating, once again, that, to understand genomes it is necessary to go back and forth between the study of the physico-chemical aspects of gene expression, and the formal study of the genome text. In summary, one would expect two distinct fates for transcripts: either they would form loops, with the 5' end scanning the 3' end until it encounters some termination signal, or the 5' end would fold and form an RNA-protein complex, with specific binding proteins, shifting away from the RNA polymerase transcribing complex. This would be the case of the ribosomal RNA, that associate with ribosomal proteins, but also of complexes such as the 5' terminal regulator of the transcription control of tRNA synthetase genes in B. subtilis.

The study of the codon usage bias in bacterial genomes indicates the presence of a strong selection pressure, which can only be understood if one thinks that the corresponding genes are synthesized on ribosomes that sit next to each other. The ribosome network organizes the cell's cytoplasm, thereby providing the bulk of the mechanic forces needed to couple translation transcription to the construction of the cell. A consequence of this interpretation is that the position of the genes in the chromosome is not random. Ther must exist a certain number of anchoring points which allow nascent transcripts to couple transcription with traduction, and to make transcription of those genes which are present in their immediate vicinity easy. It is quite possible that several RNA polymerase molecules, yoked as draught animals by an appropriate coupling factor, transcribe simultaneous several messenger RNAs corresponding to products which have to be part of the same complex. As a consequence multimeric proteins may be translated either from a single transcript (in an operon) or from several transcripts synthesized next to each other. This means that physically related functions have to be made from proteins which are synthesized on ribosomes which sit in the vicinity of each other.

This raises an important question for genomics: is it possible to find out, just knowing the genome text, whether a gene product will form a protein complex? This is of course even more unlikely than that an amino acid sequence could tell us exactly the fold of a protein, without knowing pre-existing folds. Pancreatic RNase would fold indeed, because selection isolated it with this behaviour (it is secreted in bile salts), but this should never have been accepted, as it did, as the paradigm of protein folding. Alignment with model proteins of known structure will certainly help predicting a structure, because one has to take into account the selective forces that have, during phylogeny, led to the actual fold found in the models. This "threading" approach is often used but it should be extended to the study of protein complexes, by taking into consideration the intersubunit contacts in the models. In fact, the future of structural biology does not lie in the collection of 3D structures of all the proteins of a genome, as it is often proposed, but in the identification of protein complexes, another example of the "neighborhood" approach we advocate as a prelude to discovery.

Do we find a trace of this organisation in the chromosome? It is illustrated, in the case of pathogenic bacteria, by the so-called pathogenicity islands, where genes related to the function of virulence are grouped together. And Agnieszka Sekowska and Eduardo Rocha have also recently demonstrated that genes involved in the metabolism of sulfur also make clusters, suggesting a superorganisation of the corresponding gene products, probably due to the fact that sulfur being a highly reactive atom, the gene products which deal with it must be compartmentalized in the cell to protect it from the environment. Another, more subtle, means of analysis is, once again, the study of the codon usage bias in the genes. Ribosomes translating a mRNA with a highly biased code will often require some tRNAs and rarely others. They will act as "attractors" tending to fix the frequently used tRNAs in their vicinity. This local high concentration will provide a positive selective advantage for all those mRNAs which will have roughly the same codon usage bias, because they will be translated rapidly. Therefore most mRNA molecules translated by these ribosomes will tend to have the same bias: this is a further selective stabilisation of the process. This phenomenon imposes that the same genes are often translated at the same place in the cell, and therefore that their position in the genome is fixed with respect to the general architecture of the cell. The cell is thus viewed as a series of organised layers of ribosomes, as peels in onions, where the concentration of tRNA varies progressively.

The main conclusion here is that all ribosomes are not equivalent in the cell. But do we know exactly what is a ribosome? Their structure has been determined in year 2000 — a truly remarkable technical feat — and, as were the intuitions of Luigi Gorini in the ’70s, it has been discovered that this was essentially an enzyme factory made of RNA, not of proteins. Everything goes asif what we called ribosomes were the kernel of a much more complex machine, with the translation initiation and elongation factors, the tRNA synthetases, RNAs and other molecules making translation work. This asks us to go back to the way used by biochimists to prepare ribosomes: it is much similar to that used when one prepares cherries without kernels, centrifugation. The kernel falls down during centrifugation, and the pulp remains in suspension. What we name "ribosome" is the kernel, the RNA core of much bigger objects, which are probably contacting each other (which accounts for the fact that one observes en electron microscopy that the ribosomes are regularly distributed along the messenger RNA, while they are not in physical contact with each other), and of much more varied types. During its translation, the messenger is like a thread going through a perl necklace, where each perl has the same kernel, while its color varies: the pulp of the ribosome would correspond to the local codon usage bias as well as the presence of specific factors associated to the variety of compartments in the cell, which varies according to the nature of genes. And, because helices are universal forms (as we have seen), these necklaces of ribosomes are probably arranged in helical structures which will make the core of the cell's organisation.

Codon usage bias in methionine biosynthesis genes Codon usage bias in histidine biosynthesis genes (E. coli)

It is therefore quite natural to study the distribution of genes having a similar codon usage bias along the chromosome, and to relate it with the metabolic or structural functions in the cell. We have found that it is far from random: a linear correlation exists within each type of organised metabolic pathway, showing that indeed there is a structural selective pressure in the organisation of genes and gene products. The neighborhood approach Indigo is meant to provide a first way to tackle this question, exploring some of the most obvious neighborhoods.

A highly focused view, complementary to the one exposed here is supported by the SIMEBAC project of the Foundation Fourmentin-Guilbert.

Training and technology transfer

Integration of in vivo, in vitro and in silico approaches require team work, and permanent conceptual technology transfer from various disciplines and from various environments. Collaboration between complementary views, such as the Greco-Latin, Anglo-American and Chinese, is always beneficial. This is well understood by political structures that we try to develop, for example through relevant collaborations (see the European Focus for Biotechnology in China). An important point is to make it properly understood that technology transfer always require explicit acknowledgement of the sources of the technology, be they conceptual or technical. Since the end of 2001, a working seminar has been initiated at the Department of Mathematics of the University of Hong Kong (Pr Ngaiming Mok) where students and scientists from the Hong Kong region mixed up around Danchin and Mok on a reflection about Conceptual Biology. This seminar has resumed at the Institut Pasteur de Paris in Paris, on a less regular basis. An account of each meeting is sent to the participants as well as to all those belonging to the Stanislas Noria network (Causeries du jeudi).

(2)...... to create a culture of basic research allowing scientists to monitor emerging diseases surveillance, prevention and cure....
(1) .... to create knowledge- and education-related information resources based on laboratory experiments and "in silico" analysis .....
(3) ..... to offer new areas for technology development used in large-scale industrial applications, fostering future research.......  




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