Scientists use mixed reality to explore complex biological networks

The molecular network of an ovarian cancer cell, an example of the two-dimensional representations that make understanding such networks difficult. Researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) are using the Microsoft HoloLens, a mixed-reality viewer, to visualize these networks in 3-D. Credit: Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI)

They call it the “hairy ball.” It’s an unflattering name for two-dimensional representations of a complex biological network, a depiction of a system of linkages and connections so complex and dense that “it looks like a big mess,” said Dmitry Korkin, PhD, associate professor of computer science at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) and director of the university’s bioinformatics and computational biology program.


Korkin’s mission is to tame this mess by developing new ways of “seeing” complex , methods that enable researchers to focus on the most important information and connections—to see the trees through the forest. The visualization tools he is developing may hold the key to finding critical links between proteins and genes related to complex disorders like cancer, diabetes, and .

Complex biological networks illustrate the challenge of bioinformatics: vast quantities of valuable data generated through advanced research technologies undoubtedly hold clues to cures, and yet can they seem impenetrable to researchers seeking to analyze them. Korkin, whose research focuses on the bioinformatics of complex diseases, computational genomics, and systems biology, has long been interested in finding new ways to visualize biological networks, which can include everything from the neural connections in the human brain to all of the interactions between proteins within a yeast cell. He said he…

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