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Rubrik: Science Life

Systems biology
Major project with microbes

Published: 15.03.2007 06:00
Modified: 14.03.2007 22:24
ETH Zurich researchers are taking part in a major European project about a very small organism, Bacillus subtilis. They want to understand how the bacterium responds to stress, among other things – and what they can deduce from it to combat disease pathogens.

Peter Rüegg

ETH Zurich is taking part in one of Europe’s biggest research projects in systems biology. Using the model organism Bacillus subtilis, the researchers want to explore the entire structure of the regulatory network controlling the bacterium’s metabolism. B. subtilis is one of the best-known gram-positive bacteria and has 4100 protein-encoding genes.

Bringing specialists together

The project brings together hand-picked teams of European specialists. ETH Zurich Professors Uwe Sauer of the Institute for Molecular Systems Biology (1) and Jörg Stelling of the Institute for Computational Science (2) are taking part. Stelling says the project is significant because it allows the expert knowledge in computer sciences and systems biology at ETH Zurich to be brought together with European partners. Mathematical models represent the foundation on which the vast amounts of data created in the project will be processed and analysed.

Professor Uwe Sauer says “Our aim is to understand the mechanism by which the bacterium reacts to stress.” The scientists hope it will be possible to transfer this knowledge to disease pathogens. This ought to enable the development of new methods to fight two dangerous bacteria, the anthrax pathogen Bacillus anthracis and Staphylococcus aureus, which can cause dangerous infections in hospitals. S. aureus has become increasingly resistant to antibiotics.

Bacillus subtilis under the microscope: an ideal model organism for research (Photo:

Another aim of the BaSysBio project is to help develop new biomarkers that enable pathogenic organisms to be recognised quickly and reliably. The scientists also hope for new and attractive prospects for biotechnology applications. B. subtilis is already in use now in the pharmaceutical, chemical and foodstuffs industries, where the bacterium produces enzymes and other metabolites, for example detergent enzymes, the antibiotic bacitracin or vitamin B2. Because Bacillus subtilis is a close relative of certain disease pathogens, it is of particular interest in medical and molecular biological research.

Keeping up with the USA

The green light for the project was given in early December 2006. (3) In terms of size, the BaSysBio (Bacillus Systems Biology) project can hold its own with similar research projects in the USA. The EU is funding the project with about 12 million EUR over the next four years. 15 European research organisations and one Australian university are taking part in it. BaSysBio is co-ordinated by INRA, the French National Institute for Agricultural Research.

(1 Web site of the Institute for Molecular Systems Biology: (
(2 Web site of the Institute for Computational Science: (
(3 Press release from INRA: (

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