What is “Systems Biology”?

{First posted 1 June 2011 at u003f.com, saved from oblivion by the internet archive}

I recently asked for nominations for the next target on my Wikipedia hit-list. I counted and then recounted, and the winner by just a single vote was the Systems Biology article [1].

It’s funny because there was only one reply.

Ντάνκαν tweeted

The take-home message from Wikipedia seems to be that systems biology is nothing more than a collection of (bad)omics. And to an extent that is true: whenever funding bodies take interest in a topic like systems biology, people rebrand their research as within that sphere, to feed on the cash cow. The result is something of a hotch-potch of disparate activities flying under one banner, with those missing out on the funding declaring the topic a fad.

My own view of what systems biology should be is neatly captured by [2] (though the article isn’t about the field in particular). There are over 20000 articles published each year on cancer, and over 200 genes thought to play a role in governing cancer development. Almost all of this knowledge is disconnected. And you can see why – the intuitive, verbal reasoning approaches favoured by oncologists can be a struggle with two interacting elements, let alone 200.

Systems biology can help in two ways: by providing a framework for storing all this data, and by providing the computational and mathematical tools needed to understand the dataset as a whole.

But my opinion is not relevant on Wikipedia, with all articles written from a neutral perspective [3]. This can sometimes be hard when writing about topics you are immersed in. Check back next week to see how I get on with this one.

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  1. Systems Biology. Wikipedia.
  2. Gatenby, R., & Maini, P. (2003). Mathematical oncology: Cancer summed up Nature, 421 (6921), 321-321 DOI: 10.1038/421321a
  3. Five pillars. Wikipedia.

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