Laws of nature from the computer – spectrum of science

In 2017, Roger Guimerà and Marta Sales-Pardo from the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona, Spain, discovered a trigger for cell division. At first, however, they did not want to announce how they finally came up with it. Because the two had not found the decisive connection in their data themselves. Rather, the answer had been provided by a hitherto unpublished invention. In a way, this is a digital assistant that Guimerà and Sales-Pardo call a machine scientist. When the two of them wrote down their result, Guimerà thought: “We can’t just write that we fed an algorithm and got the answer from it. No appraiser will accept that.«

In search of factors that give the signal for cell division, the two teamed up with a former classmate, the biophysicist Xavier Trepat from the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia in Barcelona. Traditionally, the view prevailed that once a cell reached a certain size, it would divide. Trepat, on the other hand, suspected that there could be more to it than that. His research group specializes in decoding the tiny imprints that cells leave on a soft surface when they compete for their position in the network. The team had amassed an extensive dataset documenting shapes, forces, and a dozen other cellular features. However, testing all options as to how exactly some of the properties might affect cell division would have been a lifetime’s work.

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Instead, Trepat passed the data on to Guimerà and Sales-Pardo, who had them analyzed by the machine scientist. Within minutes, he delivered a precise formula that could predict the timing of cell division ten times more accurately than traditional equations that only accounted for volume or any other single characteristic…

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