Posted by: Dan | June 5, 2007

Systems Biology: It Sounds Too Holistic for Me

According to the NY Academy of Sciences, systems biology “aims to build data-driven numerical representations of biological systems.” In describing this burgeoning area of biology, they use words like “big picture” an awful lot – they might as well say holistic – bah humbug to that!

(I’m just kidding – putting biochemistry and molecular biology into a big framework is important, I’m just on the other side of that equation, taking the reductionist approach)

Really, it does make sense to me that such a systems-based approach may help the general public to begin to comprehend the complexity of the cell – something that lay people obviously cannot yet comprehend, as evidenced by the marketing successes of the Discovery Institute. It follows that, if scientists have a better holistic approach for explaining cellular complexity, they’d better realize the DI’s rubbish for what it is.

But the NYAS puts it nicely too:

A geneticist might unscrew every pipe inside the factory, one at a time for controlled experiments, of course, and determine the effect that the change has on the factory’s operation, or the cell’s function. A structural biologist might focus on the shape and size of one particular valve and try to determine how it contributes to the cell-factory’s overall functioning. A biochemist would grind up the whole factory and then try to purify and analyze each of its various parts.

Each of these approaches would surely lead to some unique insight about the workings of the factory, just as they do in the quest to understand the workings of the cell. But as scientists and engineers well know, a strictly reductionist view limits one’s ability to see the big picture. A zoom-in-zoom-out process is often necessary to make significant progress in the quest for knowledge. This is the perspective of a systems biologist, who seeks to model the mechanistic details of the inner workings of a cell without losing sight of the larger experimental picture. These are the factory’s engineers who create blueprints of the building, annotated in excruciating detail with its key industrial processes, and then step back to admire the plans as a whole.

That anthropomorphizes the cell a bit much, but if metaphor is what it takes…



  1. So when will EA be releasing SimCell? ;-)

  2. Ha! I never thought of it that way… but heck, EA came out with the evolution game Spore, so why not one for cells?

    I wonder how they could make that entertaining…

  3. Oh I imagine it could be. Build different organelles to produce energy or make proteins that can be used to build other organelles. Adjust the cell membrane to let in the stuff you need and let out the stuff you have too much of. Create defenses and Battle off invading viruses.

    In different levels you get to control different kinds of cells. Great stuff. :-)

  4. I have always thought that the work of Henrik Kacser epitomised the systems biology approach. Especially in the field of enzyme flux where he was able to show that ideas such as the reductionist view of ‘rate limiting steps” were flawed when looking at a system as a whole.

    He predated what we think of modern systems biology, but nevertheless I think he is one of the founders of this approach, and perhaps deserves more credit for it.

    I was lucky enough to attend one of the last courses that he taught at Edinburgh University before he retired as a lecturer in 1988. Great teacher also!


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