Exploradio Origins: How Modern Cells Communicate

Feb 7, 2019

In order to function, the cells in our bodies need to coordinate and pass information, say, if we need a burst of energy to flee a threat. But, without eyes, ears, or even radios, how do they signal this information reliably?

“The only way to communicate, and this is actually a big challenge for biology, is by basically sending out groups of molecules which then can interact with other molecules," said Professor Mike Hinczewski, a biophysicist at Case Western Reserve University. "There’s going to be lots of noise, and so biology has to figure out a way of compensating for that degradation of the signal."

Hinczewski uses physics and math to describe systems in biology, like how cells get the noise out of their chemical signals.

“It turns out that the mathematics involved in removing the noise from the signal is quite analogous to the mathematics that was developed around the time of World War II to basically deal with things like anti-aircraft guns,” Hinczewski said.

Early mechanical computers controlling anti-aircraft guns needed to figure out how to identify airplane locations from signals that got messed up by noisy detectors. Mathematicians Norbert Wiener and Andrey Kolmogorov independently came up with a way to remove the noise if they assumed certain properties of the noise and the signal, and it seems cells may use the same technique.

“That’s part of the beauty of a mathematical framework is even though it’s originally formulated in one case, it has applications to completely different systems,” Hinczewski said.