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Glimpse into the Systems Biology clique

Systems biology is one of those scientific disciplines that made me feel like an outsider. It was a like a clique I didn’t understand, but really wanted to be a part of nonetheless. Systems has become a bit of a buzz word in the biology community, one that has not been thoroughly defined. Last week I finally had the chance to take a look behind the buzz at a talk by Pamela Silver, Professor of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School.

Silver started out by saying that “systems biology aims to understand what evolution has given us.” Systems biology labs combine biology and engineering to figure out why certain experiments didn’t work and to engineer biological constructs to serve our ends (synthetic biology). The goal of the talk was to give a broad overview of the field, using examples of projects from Silver’s own lab.

The first of such projects was the generation of a yeast cell line that can count the number of times they have divided and remember their age. Fluorescent markers are placed under the control of complicated combinations of promoters and transcriptional activators that drive transcription only after cell division, coloring the daughter cells. This technique could allow the isolation of a population of cells of the same age, but unfortunately, the cells can currently only count to two. The lab also works on engineering fuel production from microbes, such as cyanobacteria, by harnessing the power that goes into forming C-C bonds and using it to generate hydrogen, and on understanding genome structure by assessing the role of introns in gene expression.

Pam Silver seems to be part of a new wave of scientists that fully embrace the internet to further their research and communication goals. Her lab has a wiki, she praised the virtues of YouTube in hosting data (though she said that Twitter is becoming better for that purpose), she reads Wired, and believes in reaching out to students to convince them of the cool factor in science and takes part in iGEM.

After hearing the talk, I have a much better grasp on the science behind the systems buzz. It’s a new kind of science, more exploratory, occasionally less hypothesis driven, always technology forward and sometimes internet friendly. No wonder it’s the popular clique.


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    Nathaniel Blair said:

    Isn’t the aim of all biology to understand what evolution has given us?

    I guess I’m still kinda waiting for a good definition of systems biology that isn’t really just molecular and cellular physiology. But then, I am a physiologist.

    Sometimes I get the feeling that systems biology is actually a stick with which to beat traditional cell biologists, to force them to be more quantitative.

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    Anna Kushnir said:

    Fair point on the biology bit. I have trouble distinguishing synthetic biology and systems biology, though I have come to believe that synthetic is a subset of systems. I don’t know if systems is just physiology though – I think of it more as reverse engineering nature, using biology and engineering principles. As for beating cell biologists with sticks – as much as I would like to get aboard that train, I hesitate. I think that a lot of the systems (pun intended) generated to quantitate biological phenomena are artificial and can only be interpreted within a very narrow range of experimental conditions. But then, I am a cell biologist at heart!

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    Karl Munger said:

    I like Marc Kirschner’s characterization much better: “Systems biology is like pornography, we know it when we see it”

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