By: Henry Chang
Doctor! I have been having this nasty cough recently and my chest sometimes hurts when I breathe. I just moved to this city for my new job, what should I do?
As she records the patient’s complaints, the doctor is already mentally filtering through a list of possibilities. Instead of focusing on each symptom, she recognizes that pinpointing the root of the problem will heal her patient quicker. To do so, she also needs to know details about his background such as his lifestyle, environments he has been exposed to, and more. After gathering a comprehensive understanding of the situation, she can more confidently do her job. This mentality represents the holistic medicine approach of osteopathic medicine and parallels that used in a type of rising research style—systems biology.
By analyzing broad sets of data rather than scrutinizing molecular minutiae, systems biology reveals elaborate relationships, allowing scientists to better see what does what and how it happens. Within the past decade, the Center for Complex Biological Systems (CCBS) on the University of California, Irvine (UCI) campus has received $11.5 million over five years from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences . CCBS Director Dr. Arthur Lander remarked on the field’s novelty, “Systems biology draws from an amazing array of disciplines – mathematics, engineering, physics, computer science, molecular biology, evolutionary biology, ecology and medicine – to create interdisciplinary synthesis on a scale unheard of in modern science” . It is through these concerted efforts that the vast number of complex networks, a categorized set of these elaborate relationships, and underlying principles governing biological processes can begin to unravel.
Identifying factors piece-by-piece and slowly but surely assembling the big picture represents the traditional attitude towards biology. This outlook, however, overlooks an organism’s robustness, its ability to maintain basic functionality despite modifications, and its capacity to change. With the advent of techniques that enable large-scale repetition, scientists have obtained a flexible tool capable of inspecting aspects important to understanding what makes up life. In the context of neurological disease research, systems biology has proven instrumental in gathering knowledge about brain structure and activity in conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease . Representing what is known using the network analogy has allowed researchers to find a “normal” model, against which diseases networks are compared. Similarly, this approach has also been used to build genome-scale metabolic network models, a preexisting theory for certain relationships, to predict the metabolism of model organisms, those strategically used for research, both for basic understanding and that of human diseases . These are but a few of many studies innovating today.
In systems biology, there is only room to grow as new models are made and existing ones continue to improve. By discovering more and refining what is acknowledged about the subject, over time, people will have more control over their health. Whether for the promise of personalized medicine or for the capability of counteracting cancer, be sure to look out for what happens next!
1. “UCI garners $11.5 million in continued support of system biology center.” UCI News. 11 Oct. 2012. Web.
2. Fitzenberger, Jennifer. “Explaining Life through Systems Biology.” UCI News. University Communications. 20 Oct. 2008. Web.
3. Villoslada, Pablo, Lawrence Steinman, and Sergio E. Baranzini. 2009. "Systems biology and its application to the understanding of neurological diseases." Annals of neurology 65.2: 124-139.
4. Yilmaz, L. Safak, and Albertha JM Walhout. 2017. "Metabolic network modeling with model organisms." Current Opinion in Chemical Biology 36: 32-39.