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Above, cells in the telophase of mitosis. Joe Pomerening, assistant professor of biology at  Indiana University, studies mitosis, the biochemical controls of cell division. “We’re interested in understanding the fundamental rules that determine how cell cycle enzymes and other proteins communicate with each other.” (Credit: Roy van Heesbeen)

INDIANA (US)—No matter how complex things get, it comes down to this: Cells are either directed to divide, or they are not.

The cell cycle is a complex network of genetic and biochemical interactions that direct cells to grow in size and divide. When something goes wrong, the result can be cancerous, uncontrolled growth.

Joe Pomerening, assistant professor of biology at Indiana University, studies mitosis, the biochemical controls of cell division.

“We’re interested in understanding the fundamental rules that determine how cell cycle enzymes and other proteins communicate with each other,” Pomerening says.

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Pomerening (left) and graduate student Qing Kang. (Credit: Arthur Luhur)

“We want to know how specific sets of proteins interact to pass signals to each other in a way that provides an intelligible set of instructions to cells when it’s time to divide.”

Scientists’ understanding of the cell cycle has soared in the last few decades. But the literature generated by cell biologists, biochemists and molecular biologists has tended to focus on the behaviors of individual proteins involved in cell cycle regulation.

Pomerening uses his expertise in systems and computational biology to analyze groups or networks of regulatory proteins, since these networks can produce much more complex behavior than single proteins can.

“We are going to investigate how proteins organize themselves in a way to transmit information to give the message to the cell when it is, or it’s not yet time to initiate the processes that lead to cell division,” Pomerening says.

“Looking at everything, together, we’ll ask, how do these systems know to turn division processes off or on?”

“So many things in biology are switch-like,” Pomerening explains.

“Things are either on or off. Other types of responses are more like dimmers, where the process can be activated or inactivated gradually.

“In either case, we’re interested in understanding the biochemistry of how all of these signals are both transmitted and regulated in such a way that produces just one of two possible directives.

“What I find most fascinating is how cells manage to prevent problems from arising, despite the fact that they undergo many trillions of divisions during a human’s life. My lab is pursuing to understand how cells manage to get it right so often, to better learn how and why it goes wrong in the case of cancer.

Pomerening has received funding from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences to continue his research.

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