Skip to main content
Northwestern University

‘A World You’ve Never Seen Before’

Biological research takes a quantum leap forward with the tools of advanced math

Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek was stunned to discover a world teeming with microorganisms when he peered into his microscope in 1674.

The pioneering scientist would be even more surprised today to see what biologists are doing with scientific tools he scarcely could have imagined in the 17th century.

“Science is often driven by technology. A new tool allows you to see a world you’ve never seen before,” said Richard Carthew, professor of molecular biosciences and director of Northwestern’s new NSF-Simons Center for Quantitative Biology.

Working with literally thousands of dimensions of data, Northwestern biological and mathematical scientists are collaborating to explore and solve biological mysteries such as gene regulation and embryonic development.

“We now have new instruments and new machines, but most importantly we have new ways of analyzing data,” Carthew says. “You just can’t see the patterns in that data without using very sophisticated math.”

world-never-seen.pngThe new experimental tools include next-generation DNA and RNA sequencing and live-sample microscopy, which allow researchers to observe cellular activity over time. “That generates very high-dimensional data,” Carthew says. “The only way to make sense of it is to analyze it using computational mathematics to reduce the dimensionality. Then you can see patterns in it.”

Strong collaborations

The work at the center, which launched in 2018 with a $10 million grant from the Simons and National Science foundations, is already bearing fruit.

Last year, for example, faculty associated with the center developed a mathematical method that can infer a person’s physiological time based on molecular biomarkers in blood. The discovery has implications for the treatment of diseases influenced by circadian states, such as neurodegeneration and diabetes.

“That’s just one example of a strong collaboration between a biologist who knows a tremendous amount about the genetics of the circadian cycle, and mathematicians who were able to take that and create new analytical methods to make a predication that is quite powerful and impactful,” Carthew says.

The center also sponsors seminars, fellowships and conferences, as well as a summer research program for undergraduates who want to learn how to apply mathematical concepts to problems in biology.

Learn more about:

The NSF-Simons Center for Quantitative Biology:
Back to top