Over the past decades, biology has evolved rapidly from a descriptive, qualitative discipline to a more analytical, data-driven and quantitative one. Our ability to collect numbers that describe the most basic molecular processes within the cell has increased significantly, and simple calculations based on these data can provide important insights and enrich our scientific intuition.
This course is aimed at exposing students to the practice of making back of the envelope calculations (so called Fermi problems) with key numbers in biology, and its useful applications in research. We will learn how to identify the major factors that determine the order of magnitude of the results, when to allow simplification, how to calculate them efficiently, and how to avoid common pitfalls.
The course is composed of weekly lectures on different aspects of quantitative cell biology through many examples of basic (yet often surprising) questions:
- Size and geometry (e.g. What is larger, mRNA or the protein it codes for? How many cells are there in a human?)
- Concentrations and absolute numbers (e.g. What is the elemental and macromolecular composition of a cell? How many virions result from a single viral infection?)
- Rates and durations (e.g. How long does it take cells to copy their genomes? What is faster, transcription or translation? What are the time scales for diffusion in cells?)
- Energy, food & planet Earth (e.g. What is the power consumption of a cell? How much land is needed to supply our food?)
- Information and errors (e.g. What is the mutation rate during genome replication? What is the error rate in transcription and translation?)
As part of the final assignment, students will present a calculation in front of the class (ideally in application to their field of research) and an active discussion by the course participants will follow.
There will be 5 written homework assignments during the course.