Most lab rats have to be housed, fed and bred. But not the group Daniel Beard has in mind for his new systems biology centre. They'll be virtual.
Beard, a computational biologist at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, is using computer models of rat physiology to study how genes and environmental factors interact to cause disease. He calls his project the "Virtual Physiological Rat". The final product won't look much like a rodent -more like integrated data sets on a computer – but it will act like one. That's the beauty of systems biology, an emerging f eld that integrates computer modelling with lab experiments to learn how entire physiological systems operate in health and disease.
"We are working toward the grand challenge of biomedical research: understanding the complex interplay between physiological, genetic and environmental factors," says Beard. The virtual rat project involves experts from the United Kingdom, Norway and New Zealand – some of whom are also hard at work developing a virtual physiological human.