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…