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Vol. LXII, No. 21
October 15, 2010

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Life-Death Decisions in Cells
Sorger To Give Stetten Lecture, Oct. 20

For decades, scientists have demonstrated how tiny genetic changes and subtle shifts in the biochemical environment can lead to dramatic differences in how cells behave. But as they have increasingly been able to probe the actions of individual cells, researchers have found that even genetically identical cells in the same environment vary in how they develop and respond to biochemical signals or drugs. Such differences in trajectory stem from the fact that there is some randomness built into biochemical reactions. According to Dr. Peter Sorger, a professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School, understanding the causes and consequences of this randomness requires a different approach to thinking about cellular biochemistry, one that involves a close coupling of mathematical modeling and experimental measurement.

Dr. Peter Sorger

Sorger studies the apparent paradox of how living things tolerate—and perhaps even exploit—randomness, when so much depends on the precise control of biochemical processes. He also studies how genetic differences and random fluctuations interact to generate physiologically significant changes in cellular phenotype and how these changes might alter responses to therapeutic drugs. Ultimately, he believes, these problems cannot be tackled with simple pictorial models, but require nuanced mathematical representations that assign probabilities to biochemical events.

Sorger will discuss his research into the pathways of survival and death in mouse and human cells during this year’s DeWitt Stetten, Jr. Lecture, titled, “Measuring and Modeling Life-Death Decisions in Single Cells.” The talk, part of the NIH Director’s Wednesday Afternoon Lecture Series and sponsored by NIGMS, will be held on Wednesday, Oct. 20 at 3 p.m. in Masur Auditorium, Bldg. 10.

Sorger and his lab members develop and apply experimental and computational methods to study the complex dynamics of mammalian signal transduction. Their goal is to develop systems- wide models of cellular function that still include detailed mechanistic insight.

Sorger was originally trained in biochemistry. He received an A.B. and Ph.D. in the subject, the former from Harvard University in 1984 and the latter from Trinity College in Cambridge, England, in 1987. He conducted postdoctoral research in cell and molecular biology with Drs. Harold Varmus and Andrew Murray at the University of California, San Francisco. Sorger has held his Harvard Medical School professorship since 2006. He has a joint appointment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he is a professor of biological engineering and has been a faculty member since 1994. In addition, he directs the Center for Cell Decision Processes at MIT, an NIH Center of Excellence in Systems Biology.

Sorger is a great believer in collaboration. He received one of the first NIH dual-principal investigator R01 grants. He helped found MIT’s Computational and Systems Biology Initiative and the Council for Systems Biology in Boston, organizations that foster links among researchers from varied backgrounds to promote studies in systems and computational biology. He has also helped establish several companies including Merrimack Pharmaceuticals and Glencoe Software.

NIGMS has supported Sorger’s research since 1994.

For more information or for reasonable accommodation at the lecture, contact Sarah Freeman at or (301) 594-6747.—

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