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Keck Seminar: From Social Intelligence of Bacteria to Cyber-war on Cancer

November 9, 2012 by Eshel Ben-Jacob, PhD

Video is also posted on webcast.rice.edu.

Eshel Ben-Jacob, PhD | Professor of Physics, Tel Aviv University


Cancer continues to elude us. Metastasis, relapse and drug resistance are all still poorly understood and clinically insuperable. Evidently, the prevailing paradigms need to be re-examined and out-of-the-box ideas ought to be explored. Recently, has become acknowledged that transformative convergence of physical sciences with life sciences can bring forth new perspectives for addressing major questions and challenges relating to cancer. Drawing upon recent discoveries demonstrating the parallels between collective behaviors of bacteria and cancer, I will present a new picture of cancer as a society of smart communicating cells motivated by the realization of bacterial social intelligence. There is growing evidence that cancer cells, much like bacteria do, rely on advanced communication, social networking and cooperation to grow, spread within the body, colonize new organs, relapse and develop drug resistance. I will address the role of communication, cooperation and decision-making in bacterial collective navigation, swarming logistics and colony development. This will lead to a new picture of cancer cell migration, metastasis colonization and cell fate determination. I will reason that the new understanding calls for “cyber war” on cancer – the developments of drugs to target cancer communication and control.


Dr. Ben-Jacob’s lab focuses on bacterial communication, cooperation and self-organization. Last year his group completed the de novo genome sequencing of the P. vortex strain, and are now closing the genome of the P. dendritiformis. Their main bioinformatics effort is currently devoted to identification of important genes and comparative genomics. Both the P. vortex and the P. dendritiformis genomes are marked by high number of non-coding RNA. The lab is investigating the functional role of these RNA elements in the bacterial cooperative behavior. The main research goals are to identify the genes that enable the vortex formation of the P. vortex, the genes involved in the morphotype transitions between the branching and chiral morphotype of the P. dendritiformis, additional genes that participate in colony-colony interactions, and genes that participate in decision-making (e.g., sporulation vs. competence) in the P. dendritiformis and the P. vortex.

The current modeling efforts focus on the development of higher level models in which the colony organization is coupled to the gene network dynamics of the individual cells.

The current wet lab efforts focus on identification of signaling proteins that participate in the morphotype transitions and development of a method to insert plasmids into the P. vortex and the P. dendritiformis.



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