What is Systems Biology?
Biological processes are the result of complex and dynamic interactions within and between cells, organs and entire organisms. Systems biology is a field of research which aims to enhance our understanding of and even predict such processes of life. It follows an interdisciplinary approach and combines the latest experimental methods in biology with knowledge and technologies in the fields of mathematics, computer science, physics and engineering. This iterative cycle of laboratory experiments and modelling explains the special potential of systems biology.
Adapted from the definition of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF)
Powerful new analytical technologies are driving an ever-growing deluge of biological data. The challenge for the life sciences in the coming decades will be how we best utilise this data, and systems biology is central to this challenge.
Biological research has traditionally been characterised by a reductionist approach, breaking down biological phenomena into their constituent parts and analysing these components in isolation. Systems biology acts as reintegrating force, bringing together assorted datasets and integrating them within computational models to allow us to understand biological processes across multiple temporal and spatial scales.
How is it done?
In the systems biology approach, cutting-edge technology platforms, such as genomics, metabolomics, proteomics and phenomics, are used to produce diverse datasets about a biological system. The data are integrated in a computational model, enabling researchers to simulate, explore and predict behaviour of the biological system under investigation. Further experimental work validates and refines the model, which in turn provides predictions that feed into future experimental design.
This iterative cycle produces unprecedented insights into biological functions and processes; with each cycle our understanding increases. The incremental increase in understanding that is developed can be used, for example, in further cycles to explore what goes wrong when a biological system becomes diseased and then how to prevent, diagnose and treat that disease.
Who does it?
The skillset necessary to carry out this process of repeated experimentation and modelling requires the integration of technologies and expertise from a wide array of research fields and disciplines. The unique multidisciplinary approach involves several levels of collaborations between molecular biologists, geneticists, computer scientists, physicists, mathematicians and engineers. While this enables innovative, novel approaches to previously intractable problems, achieving synergy between the different disciplinary backgrounds requires special attention.