Game theory can be useful in explaining and fighting viruses

The research team concludes that a game theory approach may offer new insights into the spread and interference of viruses, such as SARS-CoV-2. His work, described in the journal Royal Society Interface, applies the “signal game” to the analysis of cellular processes in illuminating molecular behavior.

“We need new models and technologies on many levels to understand how to tame viral pandemics,” explains Bud Mishra, a professor at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at NYU and one of the authors of the paper. “At the biomolecular level, we explain how cellularization can be understood in ways that stop disease and promote healthy functioning.”

The analysis, which included William Casey, an assistant professor in the Department of Cybernetics at the American Naval Academy, and Steven Massey, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Puerto Rico, focused on the biological and evolutionary phenomenon of “mimicry.” .

Researchers have specifically focused on two types of mimicry: “Batesian” and “Muellerian”. Batesian mimicry, named after naturalist Henry Walter Bates, involves conflict or deception between sender and receiver – for example, a harmless fly fly mimics a more dangerous wasp to deter predators. In contrast, Muller mimicry, named after zoologist and naturalist Johann Friedrich Theodor Mueller, occurs when there is a common interest between sender and receiver – for example, two species that adopt mutual warning signals as a means of providing protection for both.

These types of mimicry also occur at the molecular level.

“The RNA gene or protein macro-molecule can be considered the sender, while the signal consists of a three-dimensional conformation of the expressed gene product,” the authors write. “The host is a macro-molecule, which specifically communicates with a signaling macro-molecule, usually a protein, but can also be an RNA or DNA molecule.”

They add that the SARS-CoV-2 virus repeatedly uses molecular mimicry in its efforts to exploit its human host by mimicking, in a Bates way, healthy cells to infect the host organism. In contrast, vaccines trick the human immune system into feeling the virus attack it. Although this deception is in the vaccinated subject in the short term – in the form of reactions to the injection – the immune system retains the memory and is thus prepared in advance for the future encounter with the real virus.

This dynamic is played out every year in creating flu injections – vaccines are changed every year to accurately mimic a newly developed flu virus.

With this in mind, the researchers tried to determine whether signal play could provide a framework for analyzing different types of facial expressions. Under the signaling game, the sender wants to convince the recipient that he is carrying a message that uses both – regardless of the truth of the request.

In their analysis, the authors constructed a mathematical model that outlined a series of signaling strategies that could, in theory, be adopted by both the virus (Bates mimicry) and the vaccine (Mullerian mimicry). Their results offered a series of blueprints for how mimicry is formed, maintained, and destroyed in cell populations.

“Better knowledge of the deceptive strategies of SARS-CoV-2 will help inform vaccine design,” the researchers conclude.


The research was supported by the Office of Naval Research (N0001420WX01716), a grant from the National Institute of Physics and the Oncology Center (U54 CA193313-01) and a U.S. Army grant (W911NF1810427).

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