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"Design Features" Enters Cell Biology Vocabulary

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The most remarkable thing about a press release from the University of Bristol is the mention of "design features" in quotes, with no mention of evolution. The headline reads, "Mathematical and biochemical 'design features' for cell decoding of hormone pulses revealed." In a study of a particular hormone (GnRH) and how it behaves, here's what the lead researcher said:

Professor Craig McArdle said: "The work revealed 'design-features' of the system that make perfect sense in light of the biology, where GnRH receptor number and GnRH pulse interval vary, for example, through puberty and through the menstrual cycle.

"These features are relevant to numerous biological systems using pulsatile stimuli and suggest intriguing mechanisms for differential control of rapid and delayed responses with dynamic stimuli." (Emphasis added.)

Here's a biologist that knows design when he sees it. This quote is timely, because Casey Luskin recently celebrated Science Magazine's use of the phrase "makes sense in the light of biology" to refute the old Dobzhansky chestnut that "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

The story is all about design: signal and response, molecular pathways, inputs and outputs. McArdle presents a mathematically based "stimulation paradigm" to learn "How fast and slow molecular pathways are modulated by pulsatile, or dynamic, inputs." This design concept is important, the article concludes:

Billions are spent every year on GnRH receptor ligands and the stimulation paradigm is absolutely crucial for therapeutic applications, but remarkably little is known about how the target cells and tissues decode GnRH dynamics.

The work is strengthened by the collaboration between the University's School of Clinical Sciences and School of Mathematics together with the Department of Maths at the University of Exeter, and the study illustrates the additional insight to be gained from such collaborative 'maths-driven biology'.

Not even Jerry Coyne would allege that mathematics proceeds by blind, unguided natural processes.

Here is a refreshing instance of "design features" making its way into the working vocabulary of biologists, to the exclusion of traditional Darwinian rhetoric. The more that researchers lose fear of that word "design," the more biology will accelerate in its understanding of the rich information content of living systems.