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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Friday, February 22, 2008

Edison Chen vs Network Biology

Unless you have been living under a rock (or in a lab), you would be aware of a massive sex scandal that has rocked Hong Kong's entertainment scene and hogged their news headlines for the past few weeks.

Lurid sex photos of dashing young actor Edison Chen together with some female celebrities began circulating on the Internet in late January. Apparently, somebody nicked his private collection of photos when he sent his computer for repairs.

The fallout is severe; now the careers of the women who appeared on his photos are in jeopardy. Especially hard hit is actress singer Gillian Chung, a member of the Cantopop group Twins, who had built her career on a wholesome teenybopper image.

That image has been shattered and irate parents are protesting her continued appearance on TV.

Next to be affected is Edison Chen himself, who announced his retirement from the Hong Kong entertainment industry yesterday.

Actually, he had flown in from his hometown of Vancouver to attend this press conference at considerable personal risk. Rumour has it that a triad boss has put out a HK$500,000 bounty to chop off one of Edison's hands.

Though not intentional, one man's action has led to huge headaches for a whole bunch of people.

That instantly reminds me of something else.

You'd never guess...


A network biology diagram, depicting a cluster of protein-protein interactions in yeast (Barabási and Oltvai 2004).

In a cell, not all genes are equally important to its survival and daily function.

Some key genes hold the network together by interacting with a large number of downstream targets. These genes are called "hubs".

In above diagram, hub proteins are the ones that seem to spawn a "firework burst" of other interacting protein partners.

Hub genes are interesting to me because of their potential role in speeding up the process of biological evolution.

Tiny mutation changes to hub genes can become amplified by successive downstream interactions to become a large biological effect.

Analogous to how Edison Chen's personal collection of photos became amplified to a huge public debacle, due to his "hub" status to all those unlucky women, and hub status as a popular celebrity as well.

Of course, the opposite is also possible - some mutations to hub genes can also stop the evolutionary process if the effects are so large that it becomes lethal to the cell.

Interestingly, not all hub genes are essential genes.

In the diagram above, coloured dots indicate what would happen to the cell if that protein is removed. Red denotes lethal, green means non-lethal, orange results in slow growth and yellow has unknown effect.

In general, hub genes are disproportionately more important to cell than most others.

But a few hub genes can be removed without noticeable effect to the cell. One reason why this happens is because there are many redundant interactions in a cell. No matter how important a gene is, if there is a "spare" (homolog) that can perform its function, then it is dispensible.

Conversely, there are some "recluse" genes at the edge of the cluster that ARE essential to the cell, despite the fact that they don't have many interacting partners. Perhaps these genes fulfill a critical specialized function that cannot be replaced.

To use this in an overextended analogy (a Fresh Brainz favourite!) several organizational levels up to the level of society:

High profile, hub status individuals tend to have a disproportionately larger impact to the whole social group.

However, unless such a person performs a unique, critical and irreplaceable function, no matter how spectacular the situation appears to be, other players will simply step up and the whole thing will blow over almost as quickly as it started.

So in my opinion, nobody will remember this debacle in a few years time.

Nor will they remember its participants, especially the leading man.

Is that good news or bad news?