The Seven Stones

Systems biology & global warming


Observations suggest that current climatic models may underestimate how quickly the climate system is changing (in particular for sea level), according to a report in Science a few weeks ago (Rahmstorf et al, 2007). Another Science paper published last week shows that the capacity of the Southern Ocean CO2 sink is weakening, which may result in increased atmospheric CO2 levels in the long run (Le Quere et al, 2007).

I remember Hiroaki Kitano calling the systems biology community, in his talk at the ICSB meeting last October in Yokohama, for ideas on how system-level approaches could contribute to address the challenge of global warming. In response to the studies above, a similar call is now sent to the microbiology community by Jonathan Eisen on his blog. Research topics suggested in his post include:

  • Marine Microbiology
  • Carbon fixation processes
  • Hydrogen production
  • Carbon sequestration
  • Methane capture
  • Microbial fuel cells
  • A similar list of priorities related to energy challenges, environmental remediation and carbon cycling and sequestration can be found on the site of the Genomics:GTL research program from the US Department of Energy.

    For all the topics listed above, systems biology and synthetic biology approaches are likely to be crucial not only to accumulate the necessary fundamental knowledge but also to find ways to translate it into technological applications. Proposals, insights and visionary suggestions are more than welcome…

    some additional links:

    Special issue on Energy and Sustainability

    ASM Report on Microbial Energy Conversion

    Microbial ecology meets electrochemistry: electricity-driven and driving communities. Rabaey et al, 2007, The ISME Journal 1:9


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      Jeremy Nicholson said:

      I agree that one of the greatest challenge facing us as a species and indeed the subject of systems biology is the problem of Global Warming (GW). I would even go so far as to turn this round and say that systems biology may be the only way we can tackle humanities’ greatest ever own goal! As I previously sat on the US DoE GTL working party on GW it became painfully apparent to me that conservation, recycling and reduction of C footprints – though laudable will not suffice- as we do not have enough time for these measures be developed and scaled quickly enough to control the accelating GW problem. The simple fact is that the unstoppable economic development of the 3rd world means that atmosheric C output will get much worse before any conservation/reduction initiatives can become effective. C fixation from the atmoshere on a massive scale is required- we really have to try and fix the damage as well as stop minimising greenhouse gas output- in the SciFi film “Alien” they call such atmospheric processing “terraforming”- Science fiction or scientific neccessity? – only time will tell.

      But how to do this practically- we really have to turn to microorgansims and/or algal supercolonies of course- and one possibility is to engineer supercolonies to fix CO2 either into something insoluble/non-toxic or into something useful- bioethanol to run US 4×4s?- well perhaps not!

      So where does systems biology come in? Well obviously we have to understand in depth the biological properties of potential C fixing species at every level of biomolecular organisation at the cellular level. Then we will have to learn to genetically reprogram bugs to do what we want and to perform robustly in the real environment. Also we need to gain a much deeper understanding of the molecular ecology of microbial systems (interestingly the gut microbiome in our latest MSB article is an exampe of such a complex ecology, and it would be satisfying if we cold learn about GW solutions from studying our gut bugs.

      Also there is the fascinating problem of Quorum Sensing. This is the mechanism of small molecule signalling processes that allow individual members of a microbial species to communicate and diversify their functional ecology in a heterogeneous environment- one genome but multiple functions just like a multicellular organism. Of course the scale of the “culture” would have to be gigantic – located in abandoned mines? and that means that a simple monoculture is not going to be viable – we need to engineer a whole ecology for this to work and that means “top-down” systems biology approaches to look as the community as a whole will be required.

      Even if we can manage to get the science done in time- unarguably a gigantic task as hundreds of millions of C a year need to be fixed to make a difference- then implementation of the engineering solution will be even more formidable. But this is one issue where scientists have to take the initiative and get started quickly – after all it is possibly the most largest and important scientific challenge/project ever undertaken which will hve many unexpected spin offs and that makes the subject very exciting even though the stakes are high. Now, whenever i give public lectures, i try to highlight this- As scientsts we should all seriously ask ourselves how we can apply our unique knowledge and expertise to solving the GW problem because the politicians are unlikely to be very useful here! – in any case we need to do a lot more than recycle the newspapers and visit the bottle bank! The recent advent of Systems biology is timely and systems biologists could make the difference between success and failure At Imperial we are already starting to integrate systems biology ideas into our Grantham Centre for Climate Change ( This is also an area where we all have to try to cooperate on a large scale and maybe suppress and petty jealousies/territories (but surely scientists don’t have these?) and get on with the job in hand! – What are you going to do?

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