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KNOXVILLE — A new computational approach may help scientists better understand the way cells are able to detect and respond to their environment, a process critical to almost all living things.

While scientists have known for 25 years that a specific protein serves as an environmental sensor for cells, they have not yet figured out exactly how it transmits information from outside the cell to inside, a process known as signaling.

A new approach by University of Tennessee-Oak Ridge National Laboratory joint faculty member Igor Jouline (Zhulin) seeks to find that answer.

By studying the protein’s genetic history using powerful computing, Jouline was able to show what parts of the protein had been “conserved,” or retained over billions of generations. Knowing that these parts of the protein have stood the test of time, Jouline was able to determine that they are responsible for the most important part of the protein’s work.

Jouline’s research, along with a commentary on its importance, currently appears in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It can be found online at

This is the first time that the field of computational genomics — using computer power to develop a detailed genetic picture — has been applied to understanding the protein that allows cells to react to their environment, said Jouline.

“People thought they knew everything about the protein,” said Jouline, a member of the UT-ORNL Joint Institute for Computational Sciences. “But they mostly understood the structure, which doesn’t change.”

Previous work had focused on learning how the protein was built to understand its function, but that process only provided a static snapshot. Jouline’s approach allowed him to see how the protein had changed over time, letting him focus on the most important parts.

According to Jouline, his study — which focused on a protein found in bacterial cells — may be most important as an example of how computing power and genetic study can solve more complex problems in the future.

“This is really a proof of concept,” said Jouline. “It shows that as a new approach, genomics can really deliver new biological insights.”

Jouline co-authored the paper with Georgia Institute of Technology graduate student Roger Alexander. The research was funded by the UT Science Alliance, a center which helps promote partnerships between UT and ORNL, as well as the National Institutes of Health.


Jay Mayfield (865-974-9409,
Igor Jouline (865-974-7687,