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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009 Dec 22;106(51):21465-71. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0907732106. Epub 2009 Dec 14.

A feeling for the numbers in biology.

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  • 1Department of Applied Physics, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA 91125, USA.

Abstract

Although the quantitative description of biological systems has been going on for centuries, recent advances in the measurement of phenomena ranging from metabolism to gene expression to signal transduction have resulted in a new emphasis on biological numeracy. This article describes the confluence of two different approaches to biological numbers. First, an impressive array of quantitative measurements make it possible to develop intuition about biological numbers ranging from how many gigatons of atmospheric carbon are fixed every year in the process of photosynthesis to the number of membrane transporters needed to provide sugars to rapidly dividing Escherichia coli cells. As a result of the vast array of such quantitative data, the BioNumbers web site has recently been developed as a repository for biology by the numbers. Second, a complementary and powerful tradition of numerical estimates familiar from the physical sciences and canonized in the so-called "Fermi problems" calls for efforts to estimate key biological quantities on the basis of a few foundational facts and simple ideas from physics and chemistry. In this article, we describe these two approaches and illustrate their synergism in several particularly appealing case studies. These case studies reveal the impact that an emphasis on numbers can have on important biological questions.

PMID:
20018695
[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
PMCID:
PMC2799844
Free PMC Article
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