How Mathematics Informs Molecular Biology

For many, mathematics exists solely within the confines of a blackboard, a calculator or a textbook. But ask Javier Arsuaga and he’ll tell you that mathematics exists within us, right down to our DNA.

“Biology is very, very complicated and different areas of math can be applied to solve different types of problems in molecular biology,” said Arsuaga, a professor with joint appointments in the Department of Mathematics and the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology. “Can we develop mathematical models that make biology more predictive? That’s where the richness of mathematics comes into play.”

The study of our ever-shifting, tangle of a genome is called topology. Arsuaga harnesses this area of mathematics in tandem with machine learning and computational modeling to investigate how diseases, like breast cancer, spread.

“You’re allowed to stretch DNA, you’re allowed to fold it, you’re allowed to coil it as much as you want, but you’re not allowed to break it,” said Arsuaga. “In humans, disruption of the 3D structure of the genome is the signature of DNA-damaging agents and has been associated with a wide range of diseases, including cancer.”

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