What is Systems Biology?
Systems Biology is a catch-all name for a re-alignment of biological research toward the pursuit of understanding things like complexity, dynamics, emergence, self-organization, robustness and design. Systems Biology seeks to understand relationships between the design of biological systems and the complex tasks they perform. In other words, Systems Biology takes a reverse engineering approach in which performance objectives are inferred from knowledge of how a system is built and strives to explain what the components of the system are needed for as opposed to what do they do. This is not possible from simple correlative studies of large experimental datasets. Instead, to achieve this, Systems Biology integrates mathematical, computational, and statistical modeling with experimental data at the genomic, cellular and multicellular scales. Modeling is not the final goal, but rather is a tool to increase understanding of the system and to develop testable hypotheses.
A major goal of Systems Biology is to identify systematic ways of going back and forth between models and data, i.e. ways of generating and testing hypotheses that are not simply based on the intuitive impressions that one gets from the visual inspection of data, or the output of a few basic statistical tests. The need for such systematization is underscored by the fact that many biological and biomedical researchers now routinely make tens of thousands of measurements of potentially independent quantities in a single experiment, a situation in which old fashioned approaches to data interpretation are inefficient, to say the least.
The UCI Center for Complex Biological Systems (CCBS) promotes research and education in the area of systems biology broadly defined, which includes aspects of synthetic biology, genomics and functional genomics, computational biology, mathematical biology, biophysics, bioengineering and molecular biology.
The goal is to develop a more comprehensive and accurate understanding of complex biological systems and their behaviors. The basic approach is to facilitate the formation of multidisciplinary research teams to address the most critical questions.
Currently, CCBS is supported by a Systems Biology Center Grant from the National Cancer Institute (U54CA217378). Additional funding for CCBS educational activities is provided by the UCI Office of Research, the National Institute for General Medical Studies and the National Cancer Institute.
How we got here...
Lighting the Way
This booklet (Lighting The Way ) tells the story of an extraordinary community of scientists, educators and administrators brought together by a remarkable initiative on the part of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). From the outset, the National Centers for Systems Biology program tapped into the very heart of a movement that was rapidly sweeping through the biomedical research establishment. In retrospect, many may argue that the Systems Biology “revolution” was an inevitable consequence of the successes of the molecular biology revolution, which brought us (and continues to bring us) deep knowledge of biological mechanism, but provides only limited insight into the underlying principles of biological organization. Systems Biology seeks to remedy this deficiency, exploiting quantitative approaches and tools from Mathematics, Physics, Computer Science, and Engineering to unravel the complex relationships between molecular mechanism and organismal function.
What could not be seen as inevitable, however, was that one institute of the NIH would take it upon itself to “manage” the Systems Biology revolution, at least within the United States. At a time of deep confusion within the biological and biomedical research community about what Systems Biology is, and whether it was going to have any lasting impact, the NIGMS had the vision to support Centers that would lead by example, lighting the way for researchers everywhere. Even more remarkably, the NIGMS had the foresight to insist that Centers devote themselves not just to the task of producing exemplary Systems Biology research, but also in lighting the way in education, community outreach, and institutional transformation.
The NIGMS also demanded that Center leadership, along with a subset of each Center’s membership, get together annually to share their accomplishments in science, education, and outreach. Out of these meetings grew a sense of common purpose and community that led to the establishment of a common web portal and a broad commitment to sharing resources and expertise for the benefit of the wider scientific community. Ultimately, the activities of the National Centers for Systems Biology galvanized a large group of scientific professionals into working together to make the Systems Biology revolution accessible to everyone.
One of the ways in which the Centers work together is that, if a task of importance to all of us needs to be done, one of the Center directors will always step forward to do it. In this case—on the occasion of the first Centers reaching their final (10th) “sunset” year—my Center volunteered to organize the publication of this booklet, commemorating all of the National Centers for Systems Biology that have been designated to date. It has been a pleasure and an honor to bring together the stories and accomplishments of each current Center, and to see the common threads of excitement, innovation, and hope that run through all of them. I hope you enjoy reading this.
Arthur D. Lander
Director, Center for Complex Biological Systems
University of California, Irvine